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Vinegar Syndrome

All forms of acetate films are potentially subject to the onset of “Vinegar Syndrome”, a devastating degradation which breaks down the base layer of film resulting in the film eventually becoming unusable.

Acetate (cellulose acetate) has been used as a base for film since the early 1900’s primarily as a safe replacement for the volatile and highly dangerous Nitrate film that was used at that time. It was not until the 1940’s that the most common form of cellulose triacetate was introduces to the widespread acceptance of the industry. At that point the use of nitrate based films was largely abandoned, due mainly to the fire risk that it presented.

Whilst the quality and safety of cellulose triacetate films was recognised from the start, it wasn’t long before signs of trouble emerged with the format. Some say that the first reports of what is now known as “vinegar syndrome” emerged in the late 1950’s from the Government of India, where a large collection of films were stored.

At the time, the symptoms were not understood however we now know that the conditions in the region (humidity and strong heat) are the perfect cocktail for advancing the onset of “vinegar syndrome”.

As years passed, naturally many further cases emerged until it was eventually understood that the chemical structure of acetate based films is inherently prone to the vinegar syndrome, it is simply waiting for the necessary ingredients, humidity and heat to activate it’s progression.

How does it happen?

Cellulose triacetate film is a polymer based material which is created with a chemical reaction between cellulose and acetic acid. When the film is exposed to heat and humidity over a period of time, the acids that exist between the substrate and the emulsion break their molecular bond and make their way to the surface. It is this detached acetic acid (which is also the key ingredient in vinegar) that give the characteristic smell.

Not all cellulose triacetate film will eventually suffer from vinegar syndrome. It is quite conceivable that a film stored at around 18-20 degrees celcius and 50% relative humidity (an unlikely controlled environment for most of us) will never deteriorate.

What does Vinegar syndrome do to my films?

The process of degradation has several stages, each resulting in further deterioration of the film. The first sign is the vinegar like smell, which is usually easy to detect. The smell in itself is not enough to spell the end for your film, rather subsequent stages are.
After some time, the polymer base of the film will become brittle, meaning any tension or movement can shatter the film with dire consequences.

Warning: If your film shows signs such as this, it is highly advisable that you pass your film to an expert for recovery (WA Duplication have years of experience in recovering film of this nature – it’s what we do on a day to day basis).

Unfortunately, the films polymer base will usually shrink as a part of the chemical reaction that will occur. This will have the effect of dislodging the emulsion resulting in a buckling effect sometimes referred to as “channelling”. Once your film reaches this stage there is very little that can be done.

What should I do if my film shows signs of vinegar syndrome?

Whilst we never recommend disposal or destruction of films in any form (they are a truly historic medium that should be preserved at all costs), we do recommend the archiving of film footage at the highest possible quality.

Our advanced frame by frame telecine process will provide your best chance for retaining the integrity of your film footage to the future (regardless of whether vinegar syndrome has kicked in).

We clean films with a specially balanced antistatic solution in a controlled manner that will cause no harm to your film. This enables us to scan each frame of your film, output to a flicker free video stream at maximum resolution. The resulting footage is colour balanced, checked and outputted to your desired format – DVD, Blu-Ray, .avi. .mov. DV tape – you name it.

First and foremost, don’t let your film suffer the destructive consequences of vinegar syndrome. Keep them in a cool, dry, temperature controlled environment. Having said that, you just don’t know what the future holds – fires, floods, theft and more can destroy your valuable memories. The dropping cost of digital storage means backups are cheap and easy and you’ll never lose your precious memories.