Christmas Decorations in the Attic Might Be Sprinkled with Asbestos

Chest in empty attic

Crawling into the attic this month to pull out the old Christmas decorations that grandma left behind might not be the wisest thing to do , especially if you live in an older home anywhere near the snow belt.

It might be safer just to leave those decorations where they are. Leave those aging wreaths and sentimental ornaments alone.

An estimated 30 million homes in this country, mostly in the Midwest and Northeastern states, still have attics with Zonolite insulation, which contains the asbestos-filled vermiculite. It’s where a lot of Americans go each December to find their stored-away holiday decorations.

Often they come out of the attic — people and decorations — sprinkled with dust particles, which may or may not be tainted with asbestos from the insulation that is there.

No level of asbestos-exposure is considered safe, according to experts. Inhalation of asbestos fibers can lead to a number of serious health issues, including mesothelioma cancer, which has no cure.

Experts say it is the children in the home who become most vulnerable when the artificial trees and colored lights come down from the attic, where the asbestos is better left undisturbed.

“It’s particularly important to understand the risks for children who have higher breathing rates and will inhale more of the fibers,” Aubrey Miller, M.D., medical director for the Environmental Protection Agency, told AOL News a year ago. “Children, especially the young ones, spend much of their time on the floor playing with the ornaments and toys, breathing the asbestos-contaminated dust.”

According to a recent study done in France and published in the European Respiratory Journal, people who are exposed to asbestos at a younger age have a greater chance of developing mesothelioma later in life than others whose first exposure comes when they are older.

The vintage ornaments with all the sentimental value might be the most dangerous. Asbestos was once lauded as a valued resource, particularly for its heat resistance and fire-proofing capabilities, making it perfect for Christmas tree decorations.

Asbestos was once marketed as artificial snow and sprinkled on trees and wreaths and ornaments. Although those products have not been produced for many years, the oldest decorations that were passed down from one generation to the next, may still have small amounts of asbestos.

The most famous asbestos snow scene was used during the filming of “The Wizard of Oz,” the 1939 classic with Judy Garland that became the most watched film in history. There is a scene in the movie where snow, made from asbestos, falls on Dorothy and her friends, awakening them from a spell cast by the Wicked Witch of the West.

The Raybestos-Manhattan Corporation, which made the product, even marketed the snow in 1940 with an advertisement that included: “It is a safe snow for holiday decorations.”


Tim Povtak is an award-winning writer with more than 30 years of reporting national and international news. His most recent experience is in researching and writing about asbestos litigation issues and asbestos-related conditions like mesothelioma. If you have a story idea for Tim, please email him at tpovtak@asbestos.com

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