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Nitrate Films Pose Fire Danger

Chemist Mahesh Mahanthappa inspects a decaying reel of cellulose nitrate film

Collaborating with the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research and chemistry department, staff with the Wisconsin Historical Society are studying the effects of cellulose nitrate film decomposition and the associated fire risk. "This project offers a vital opportunity to improve our understanding of nitrate film, a medium that has proved problematic for many in the conservation field," said Katie Mullen, the Society's preservation coordinator. "The project results will be of great value not just to the Society and its partner institution, the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research, but also to the wider field of historic preservation."

Mahesh Mahanthappa, director of the Mahanthappa Research Group in the university's chemistry department, is using his expertise with polymers to best design the experiment. Meanwhile, Vance Kepley, the film and theater research center's director, film archivist Maxine Ducey, and staff from the Society are providing samples of nitrate film and soliciting other samples from other national institutions.

Decaying Nitrate Films Produce Toxic Gases

Cellulose nitrate films decompose and produce gases such as nitric oxide and nitrous oxide. These gases combine with moisture in the air to form nitric acids, which are highly corrosive. Decayed cellulose nitrate film can become very unstable and can suddenly ignite. Once decomposing begins, the gases encourage even more decomposition and affect other nearby collection materials.

Identifying Problem Films in the Collections

In 2010 a report by Society staff identified nitrate moving image films that were in an advanced state of decay, identified as duplicates of films preserved elsewhere, or that were not candidates for preservation reformatting. Examples of films selected for withdrawal include "Mystery Mountain," "Uptown New York," "Ford Animated Weekly," Renfrew on the Great White Trail" and "Larceny on the Air."

"These nitrate films posed a significant threat to the continued preservation of all other collections in the Society," said Mullen. "Federal fire codes require nitrate film to be disposed of through controlled incineration by a certified hazmat vendor."

Potential Collaboration Project Outcomes

With additional information from this collaboration project, Mullen added that it might be possible to petition the National Fire Protection Association to reconsider their codes regulating the storage and handling of nitrate films, which, in the end, would give archivists a little bit of breathing room.

Collaborating with other disciplines on campus proves to be a great opportunity for all involved. "This is the first time in modern film preservation that scientific metrics have been applied consistently to the questions of nitrate film decomposition," said Ducey.

:: Posted March 19, 2012

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