Safely using old-stock Nitrate / Nitrocellulose film?
Does anyone have any advice/suggestions on how to "safely" use old-stock Nitrate (Nitrocellulose) based films?
I'm not talking about the typical stash of old negatives from the grandparents, or cine film movies in the archives... but rather, exposing/developing/archiving NOS rolls of unexposed film.
The reason I ask: I have recently come across some WWII aerial film, with an expiration date of Feb 1944. It is generically boxed with the green labels, unopened, and with several emulsion and type codes but without any manufacturer listed. I know that safer film bases were available at least as far back as the early 1930s, but until I can do a flammability clip test, I'm going to go ahead and assume that this is the "bad stuff" and plan accordingly.
As a starting list, these are the tidbits I have gathered from various sources:
- The film may have already decomposed into flammable powder or goo, so it might not even be usable.
- A fire will be fast and difficult to suppress, and water doesn't necessarily help (reactions produce oxygen, so it can keep burning anyway, and the water increases the amount of smoke)
- The gasses produced by a fire are highly toxic
- Decomposing film produces nitrogen oxides (gasses), which are toxic and corrosive to metals when in the presence of water
- Dry film can ignite when subject to heat or shock
- Gloves and goggles should be worn when examining film
- Film should be discarded when it shows signs of decomposition (soft or sticky surface, etc)
There are several "official" reports on how to deal with this type of film, such as "the Standard for Storage and Handling of Cellulose Nitrate Motion Picture Film" published by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), but based on the summaries I have read, the safety & storage requirements seem to drop off significantly when the amount of film being stored is less than 25 lbs. I have about 4.5 lbs (including container, spool, & box weights), but that doesn't mean that I'm not taking it seriously. I have also seen this quote many times in different places: "While decomposing motion picture film has been known to self-combust, still-camera negatives has not." I suspect this difference is due to quantity or perhaps even just the statistical likelihood based on the quantities...
So, all of that being said, here are my preliminary thoughts:
- Store the film (unexposed AND exposed/developed) outside, in an old BBQ grill which could safely handle a fire, a reasonable distance away from the house
- Scan and print the negatives instead of using an optical enlarger (and the associated heat-producing light source)
- Divide the film into separate metal containers so that a single fire will not (necessarily) involve the whole batch going up
There are also things I am unsure about... such as whether the metal storage containers should be sealed or vented, whether static electricity can ignite the film, or how much of an impact (and with how much film) it takes to self-ignite dry film.
Any thoughts would be appreciated. This is an area where the doesn't seem to be a lot of information (or even awareness!), outside of the motion picture or museum archival houses...
For a start, just run an unexposed piece through some developer. If it is not usable (most likely), label it and take it to your local haz-mat disposal facility. If it is usable (most unlikely), then worry about all that other stuff. No use making a big deal over film that is fogged beyond usefulness in the first place.
"Truth and love are my law and worship. Form and conscience are my manifestation and guide. Nature and peace are my shelter and companions. Order is my attitude. Beauty and perfection are my attack."
- Rob Tyner (1944 - 1991)
When I worked in precious metal recovery we'd get nitrate films, they were handled with extreme care exposure to air can cause spntaneous cumbustion and that's not always immediate. I worked with someone whose factory had burnt down becasue some film ignited.
Those working with these films use extereme precautions. It's not worth your risks.
Personally, I'd not bother with trying to use this film. If (like me) you are interested in trying old films, there are plenty of safe materials available on Ebay, garage sales, etc.
You may well be OK with a small amount of film, but why risk it....it's not like it's exposed film with some important historical content which would justify special conservation. And don't overlook that there are things like your house insurance to consider...I doubt you'd be covered while knowingly using quantities of nitrate film!
Yes, I'm not terribly concerned quite yet, just erring on the side of caution until I can confirm the film base. Better safe (with the film outside, away from the house) than sorry. But once I started thinking about it, I wanted to learn more about the nitrocellulose film handling, even if this particular film wasn't the nitrocellulose type. So I would have asked the same questions either way.
Now, the reason I'm even contemplating using film this old at all is that it is 9.5" wide roll film, intended for aerial photography, but going to be put to use in an ULF panoramic roll-film camera. The film in this size is very difficult to find, even greatly outdated, and at $300+ per roll for decade-old film, it isn't cheap either. If you need fresh stock, plan on a $10,000 minimum order. I would probably die of old age before I saw any of this film at a garage sale, and even global ebay availability is patchy at best. For experimenting on a budget, camera test rolls, etc, sometimes this old stock is the best you can get.
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The gases released from unstable nitrate film are very injurious to camera mechamisms.
A rock pile ceases to be a rock pile the moment a single man contemplates it, bearing within him the image of a cathedral.
~Antoine de Saint-Exupery
They are also deadly to inhale and explosive. Having nitrocellulose film in your house would be like having a canister of Sarin in the home.
Originally Posted by Gerald C Koch
Unstable film base
The decomposition of both acetate (Vinegar Syndrome) and Nitrate are catalysed by the gasses that these products give off when they start to decompose.
Originally Posted by Gerald C Koch
The recommendation for Acetate film with VS is to keep it well ventilated or to use the special "Sieves" to keep it away from the gas. Nitrate has so many other requirments listed that is it easy to miss the ventilation requirements.
Unexposed film is shipped in sealed containers to protect the emulsion from contamination. Sealed World war II film has been sealed and soaking in its own out-gassing for sixty Five years (at Least) so if there has been any decomposition it is probably already in the sweating dynamite stage of its life (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dynamite)
I still live just beyond the fringe in Stittsville