Skip to main content

Why shipping nitrate film is dangerous
August 16, 2022

“Film has a personality, and that personality is self-destructive.” - Orson Welles

Cellulose nitrate film was a pioneer of motion picture film bases. It has long been lauded for the beauty and quality of its image: bright whites practically pop off the screen, contrasting beautifully with deep, rich blacks. The natural shimmer and high dynamic range allowed cinematographers to truly paint with light.

However, as with most things, beauty comes at a price: nitrate film is inherently unstable and extremely flammable.

While cellulose nitrate film hasn’t been produced for more than half a century, a great deal of nitrate film base remains in archives and private collections worldwide. It is especially popular among cinema aficionados and often changes hands as collectors and archivists build and curate their collections. However, shipping nitrate film can be very dangerous. Here’s why:

Nitrate film decomposes

As the film ages, it naturally degrades and decomposes. Without proper ventilation, it decomposes rapidly and releases noxious gasses such as nitric oxide, nitrogen dioxide, etc. If the film is stored in tightly-sealed canisters or boxes, this degradation and decomposition can create a pressure cooker effect. In addition, these gasses can damage other acetate and polyester-based films stored nearby.

Nitrate fires are violent and spread rapidly

Nitrate film burns at an even higher temperature than gasoline. Chemically, it is very similar to gunpowder. Once ignited, the combustion process produces oxygen, making it nearly impossible to extinguish. It burns with a very hot, intense flame, releasing large quantities of highly poisonous gasses, which can be lethal if inhaled. Attempting to douse it with water can even increase the amount of toxic smoke produced.

Proper storage and handling

Maintaining a cool, consistent environment is imperative. Nitrate film should be stored in a cool, consistent ambient temperature below 70 degrees F, at a relative humidity between 30-40%. At temperatures approaching 100 degrees F, nitrate film becomes extremely flammable and potentially combustible if the film has significantly deteriorated.

Nitrate film should not be stored in sealed containers like a taped box or can. The film must be allowed to breathe and off gas. Likewise, the area around the film should also be well ventilated, away from all ducts, vents, electrical equipment, or heat sources, including direct sunlight.

For more information on proper storage and handling of nitrate film stocks, refer to these resources from the National Archives and Kodak.

Shipping nitrate film

Most shipping environments are tightly packed, poorly ventilated, and experience wide temperature fluctuations–a recipe for disaster when it comes to nitrate film.

The best way to handle nitrate film is carefully and thoughtfully. However, there are also strict regulations that must be adhered to.

Federal regulations

If you believe your film to be nitrate base, it cannot be shipped through standard postal or courier services. It is categorized as a flammable solid and must be shipped through a certified carrier according to the Department of Transportation’s code of federal regulations for the transportation of hazardous materials (CFR49).

Consult with the experts at CARGOpak Corp.

The best and easiest solution is to consult with a hazardous materials (hazmat) shipping expert. With over 25 years of hazmat transport experience, our consultants can assist your company with all aspects of regulatory compliance.

We also offer customized DOT hazardous materials compliance training classes and live instructor-led webinars. Our classes will provide your team with a clear and concise understanding of the relevant US Dept. of Transportation Hazardous Materials regulations.

To get started, fill out a Needs Assessment Form or call us at (919) 217-7636

Why shipping nitrate film is dangerous