Do your Christmas decorations contain asbestos?

Asbestos protection. Worker wearing protective clothing, a face mask and safety goggles.
Asbestos protection. Worker wearing protective clothing, a face mask and safety goggles.

One of the great Christmas traditions in many families is getting the Christmas decorations you've had for decades out of the loft, and hanging them on the tree. But hanging onto old baubles for sentimental reasons could pose a serious health risk. The UK Asbestos Training Association has warned that some older decorations may contain asbestos. So what should you do?

Asbestos is the name given to fibrous materials that occur naturally and have been mined extensively for more than 100 years. It was highly prized for decades because it is heat resistant, sound proof and hard-wearing. However, in the middle of the 20th century, it was also revealed to be a serious health hazard - causing certain types of cancer and asbestosis.

It is particularly risky when it is in the home and is disturbed, because people can breathe in the dangerous fibres and put themselves at risk of disease. By getting the decorations out of their packaging and hanging them, you could be doing just that.

The decorations to watch for are those dating back to the 1930s and 1940s, when fake snow was made from asbestos. People actually bought packets of asbestos, and put it on the tree where the whole family was at serious risk of inhaling the particles. At the time it was considered a safe alternative to putting cotton wool on the tree - because the trees were often still lit by candles and the asbestos was less likely to catch fire.

It's not thought that any of these packets of fake snow are still stored in people's lofts, but they may well have decorations from the era which are covered with it. It was added to baubles, ornaments and wreaths, so could be lurking anywhere.

If you have any decorations from that period, which have fake snow on them, the advice is to contact your local authority, who will let you know how to dispose of them. It's important not to hang them around the house as your family will be breathing in potentially deadly asbestos fibres.

Vintage baubles from later eras don't have the same problem, because with the outbreak of the second world war, asbestos was needed for the war effort, so decorations from the 1950s and 60s can still be used to bring a touch of nostalgia to the Christmas tree.

Decoration danger

You don't have to be putting vintage decorations up to be at risk of damaging yourself with decorations this Christmas. Each year around 1,000 people end up in hospital after an accident with a Christmas tree, and 1,000 more are injured decorating their homes.

Particularly common problems are people falling off chairs, falling out of lofts, or children cutting themselves on glass baubles. The experts recommend using a ladder for any jobs off the ground and only tackling jobs like this when you have someone to hold the ladder for you. They also say it's essential to keep fragile decorations out of the reach of children.

Around 30 people are injured each year by lights - either falling while putting them up, children biting into them, or people receiving shocks from faulty lights. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents advises not to use very old lights, and to test them each year before putting them up to check they haven't deteriorated.

It's vital to take care around decorations. However, if you do succumb to a Holly-related mishap, you can take some comfort from the fact that it can happen to even the most fashionable of us. In 2008 Kate Moss and her boyfriend Jamie Ince were seen out and about sporting minor facial injuries. It finally emerged that Ince had accidentally dropped a box on the pair of them when they were getting the decorations down from the attic.

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