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Stinky, Degrading Film And How To Stop It

Moldy Movies. Credit: Analytical Methods

Like humans, fungi have a taste for old movies. The problem is that they like to eat the film rather than watch it.

Adding insult to injury, fungi produce copious amounts of stinky odors from their consumption of classic flicks.

In fact, this fungi flatulence can cause headaches, nausea and irritated eyes in humans. (In particular, one airborne fungal molecule called 1-octen-3-ol.)

For this reason film archive staff fear any sort of mold on film reels: It means their precious collections are being destroyed by fungi.

Furthermore the fungal digestion produces smells that can make conservators sick.

That’s why the UK’s North West Film Archive approached researchers at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) to ask if there was any way to build a machine to detect the problematic odors.

Last week, MMU’s Craig Banks and his collaborator Gavin Bingley reported a handy new mold flatulence detection device.

With such a machine, conservators can test film reels donated from attics and basements. Sometimes these donations are so thick with dust it is hard to distinguish from mold—unless conservators take a sample and try growing it in a lab, Banks says. (Which then means the conservators may be exposed to the stinky molecules they’d much rather avoid.)

Another benefit of the device: If invasive fungi manage to sneak into storage areas, the detector can forewarn conservators about the moldy intruders before the growth gets out of hand—or is visible to the naked eye.

It’s worth pointing out that even if mold is kept at bay, old degrading film produces its own special brand of harmful flatulence.

The first kinds of film were made from cellulose nitrate and cellulose acetate. In addition to being flammable, these kinds of plastic degrade in the presence of light, heat and air to produce nitric acid and acetic acid.

Both of these molecules can become airborne, where they float around and catalyze degradation in nearby, otherwise unsuspecting film.

It’s what conservators call the “vinegar syndrome” – primarily because acetic acid is vinegar and degrading film smells like a salad freshly tossed in vinaigrette.

Conservators try to delay film breakdown in two ways. First, by keeping film archive temperatures low, which slows down degradation reactions.

Second, by keeping archives well aerated and/or by capturing acetic and nitric acid. Now it seems, conservators will have a third way to help keep old film by being destroyed.

Here’s what amuses me: Film is a form of art that appeals to our eyes (and sometimes) ears, but it is our noses that are petitioned when film is under duress.

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