Warning over gas WWII masks

Historic Quay volunteer Wally Stewart with a Second World War gas mask
Historic Quay volunteer Wally Stewart with a Second World War gas mask

MUSEUM bosses and councillors have issued an urgent warning for people not to put on Second World War gas masks as they may contain harmful asbestos fibres.

Town officials say the warning is timely ahead of the 100th commemoration of the start of the First World War, in 2014, which may see a rise in wartime memorabilia and demonstrations of gas masks from the war era.

The issue was raised at a recent meeting of Hartlepool Borough Council’s children’s services committee by Labour councillor Chris Simmons.

Bosses at the Heugh Gun Battery, on the Headland, have reiterated the warning and urged people not to be tempted to put on or handle a Second World War gas mask.

Built in 1859, the battery is famous for returning fire when the German Navy bombarded the Hartlepool in 1914.

Historians say the respirators, or gas masks as they are known, developed from a piece of gauze in the First World War to a full face mask by the time the Second World War started.

John Southcott, chairman of the Heugh Gun Battery Trust, said: “There wasn’t much thought given to the long-term health affects and in the Second World War every man, woman and child had a mask, or respirator.

“Our advice is if you have one at home to dispose of it properly and do not at any time put it over your face.

“There are bound to be a lot of ad-hoc commemoration events next year, as well as the official events, so people need to be on their guard and be aware of the dangers and health implications.”

The Battery site does have gas masks from the Second World War, but they are safely behind cabinets and are not handled by the public.

Second World War gas masks are potentially dangerous as they can release asbestos fibres and they can also be contaminated with harmful chemicals from previous use in gas drills.

In addition some post war gas masks can release asbestos fibres and can be contaminated and tests have shown that the fibres can be inhaled by wearing the masks.

Meanwhile, asbestos fibres can also be released from handling the masks, filters or carrying bag.

Coun Simmons said: “This warning is particularly pertinent in the build up to the commemorations of the start of the First World War and there is likely to be more memorabilia about.

“It is important that this committee is aware of it and the council’s education department is acting on it.

“It is obviously very important that we keep our children and our staff safe.”

Committee members were told that headteachers in Hartlepool schools had also been reminded about the dangers of Second World War gas masks and not to use them for displays.