Britain’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has told schools to destroy Second World War gas masks and First World War soldiers’ helmets because they may pose a small health risk to children.
The Times reports that despite both items already being widely used as teaching aids in history lessons, especially in the run up to the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War, the HSE issued guidance saying that it is “not appropriate” for teachers and children to wear or handle them as they may contain small amounts of asbestos.
They advise schools to double-bag the historic artefacts and have them destroyed unless they pay an authorised inspector to certify that they are asbestos-free, or keep them in a sealed display case.
In a letter to schools, the HSE writes:
Schools that have any of these items of war memorabilia that are suspected to contain asbestos should remove them from use. They should be double bagged in plastic which should be taped shut, appropriately labelled and securely stored while arrangements are made for either disposal through your local authority’s licensed disposal site, or made safe by a licensed contractor by, for example, encapsulation such that they can be safely displayed, eg, in an appropriately labelled cabinet.
Tudor historian Chris Skidmore, who also sits as a Conservative MP, told the Times: “I would be highly alarmed at any advice that was suggesting historical relics of any kind should be destroyed.
“We all know there is nothing better than for pupils to see face to face, to touch and to examine historical artefacts.
“While I understand there may be safety concerns, this advice seems to far extend from some common sense or reason.
“Half of schools are filled with dangerous asbestos and the HSE would do better to focus its resources and energy on this far more serious problem than potentially destroying valuable historical artefacts.”
The HSE admitted that there have not been any known cases of asbestos poisoning arising from teachers and children handling wartime gas masks and helmets in lesson.
“We are not currently aware of any teachers or children having been exposed to asbestos or becoming ill as a result of wearing/handling gas masks,” an HSE spokeswoman said.