Storing and Handling Cellulose Nitrate Film With NFPA 40, 2019 Edition

Cellulose Nitrate Film Storage Handling NFPA 40 2019

NFPA 40-2019 is the 2019 edition of the Standard for the Storage and Handling of Cellulose Nitrate Film.

The very existence of this American National Standard might seem strange. Cellulose nitrate film, a product once widely used in cinema but ceasing production nearly 70 years ago, is by no means a pillar of the modern industry.

However, cellulose nitrate film is remarkably hazardous. Something that comes to mind from more-recent cultural consciousness is a scene near the end of the Tarantino film Inglourious Basterds, in which film is used to burn down an entire theater. Such an action is plausible, considering that cellulose nitrate film, which contains a high proportion of nitro-cellulose (celluloid), is incredibly flammable. Once it catches fire—engulfing in flames quite easily—it is very difficult to put out, burns extremely quickly with an intense flame, does not require oxygen to keep burning, and emits smoke with high quantities of poisonous gases.

Back in 1979, the Technical Committee on Storage, Handling, and Transportation of Hazardous chemicals of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), being strongly aware of both the dangers of cellulose nitrate film and the material’s lack of relevancy, debated whether to withdraw the NFPA 40 document. By that time, the standard had been adopted by NFPA for almost 70 years (it was developed by the National Board of Fire Underwriters Committee of Consulting Engineers prior to then), but cellulose nitrate had not been produced for over two decades.

However, the committee decided to revise NFPA 40 and maintain it as an active standard as long as archive collections are maintained. Cellulose nitrate film was used for 35 mm photographic roll film and photographic sheets until 1940 and was used for amateur formats and aerial photography until 1950. Cellulose nitrate-based cinematographic film (35 mm gauge) was mostly used until the early ‘50s, but it retained usage in some countries for a number of years after then.

Considering the sheer abundance of this material spanning the Gilded Age to just after the Second World War, a sizable quantity of cellulose nitrate film has survived generations. In fact, all existing silent films are most likely composed of cellulose nitrate film. Large archive collections collecting nitrate film are maintained by the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian, US military services, and others. In addition, with rising nostalgia as a driving force for pop culture, it isn’t too farfetched to assume that various smaller organizations and cinemas might desire to possess older film prints.

For these reasons, NFPA 40-2019 is an active standard, and the revisions that have been applied to the document over the past several decades have helped serve its users who may handle or store cellulose nitrate film. Specifically, it gives general provisions for the storage and handling of cellulose nitrate film and special provisions for occupancies like motion picture projection booths, nitrate film vaults, and laboratories handling nitrate film. It applies to all facilities that are involved with storage handling of this film, and it explicitly excludes the storage and handling of film with a base other than cellulose nitrate.

NFPA 40-2019 covers factors like film cabinets, venting, the construction and arrangement of buildings, and related fire protection guidelines in assuring safety.

Like its predecessors, NFPA 40-2019 was published with numerous changes to help adapt the standard document for its modern usage in handling or storing this antiquated film. Notably, a new definition for decomposition was added. This consideration is crucial, since cellulose nitrate film can become unstable and decompose at temperatures as low as 38 degrees Celsius (100.4 degrees Fahrenheit). When this happens, the film gives off large quantities of gases that are both toxic and flammable.

NFPA 40-2019 handles the issue of decomposition by specifying the design of decomposition vents, which help to offset the dangers of decomposing cellulose nitrate film. This issue will continue to become more severe over time, as the likelihood of cellulose nitrate film decomposition can only increase.

Additional changes to NFPA 40-2019 include the replacement of terms standard roll and single- and double-roll containers with terminology used by modern archivists, new information for inspection and maintenance of portable fire extinguishers to comply with NFPA 10, alterations to extended term vault storage rules to allow for flexible storage configurations, adjustments to the openings in and exhaust capacities of projection booths to reflect modern practices and equipment, and the addition of the new section 8.1.1.1 for controlling temperature and humidity in enclosures with nitrate film.

NFPA 40-2019: Standard for the Storage and Handling of Cellulose Nitrate Film, 2019 edition is available on the ANSI Webstore.

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