The University of Arizona
 

Deteriorating Negatives:
A Health Hazard in Collection Management

By Patricia W. Hollinshead, Mark D. Wan Ert,
Steven C. Holland, Kathy Velo, 1987
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Long considered the most dangerous properties of aging nitrate film are its volatile characteristics. Recently, the danger of allowing contact between decomposing cellulose nitrate and nearby materials in storage is attracting attention. Gaseous by-products of deteriorating cellulose nitrate film will damage adjacent photographic materials, specifically nearby silver gelatin photographs (Hendriks, 1984:39). So we take care to prevent the interaction of decomposing cellulose nitrate with nearby susceptible objects. Yet chemical products of deteriorating negatives can be dangerous to individuals as well as to objects.

The Arizona State Museum recently completed a photo duplication project involving nearly 8000 nitrate and diacetate negatives ranging in age from 50 to 60 years. Personal injuries occurring during the project were linked to the handling of the aging negatives.

An employee cataloguing the film materials suffered eye irritation, rashes, and sores on the face and skin. Breathing became labored following several hours of exposure to the negatives and associated storage materials. Contact lenses worn while working the materials discolored and turned brittle. An ophthalmologist reported them to be chemically contaminated.

The project photography technician experienced skin irritation, vertigo, nausea, headache, and swollen glands during the processes of sorting and duplicating the deteriorating negatives. Irritation diminished within 24 hours. In one instance however, respiratory difficulties remained for three days following exposure to nitrate negatives.

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