Nitrate films: Danger in the attic

At the beginning of the 20th century, almost all slides, cine films and negatives were made of nitrate film. After several fires in cinemas in the last century, people learned about the danger of this material. However, disaster may be hiding in your attic.

What is a nitrate film? Why is it so dangerous?

Nitrate films are film carriers consisting of a nitrogen cellulose ester. The chemical compound formed during the production of nitrate films is classified as an explosive. Burning nitrate film cannot be extinguished because it contains enough oxygen to continue burning even when exposed to water, extinguishing powder or extinguishing foam.

Between 1895 and 1950, all 35mm films were produced on nitrate film, although the high fire hazard was already known at that time. Your cine films, negatives or slides may be affected.

What does this mean for you? Keep an eye out for nitrate films! Take a look through your old media, search specifically for nitrate films and better be safe than sorry. We show you here how to recognise nitrate films.

Attempt to extinguish a nitrate film

The following video shows why burning nitrate film is so dangerous:


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Nitrate films do not belong in the atticNitratfilme - Große Gefahr im Haushalt!

The substances in the nitrate films are very flammable and continue to burn even without oxygen. During summertime it can get very hot due to strong sunlight, especially attics or garages tend to heat up. If ypu store your media there it can get dangerous. Especially if your films are in tightly closed containers, ignition can even lead to an explosion!

Don’t let that happen and check your media with our checklist; Do you still have old nitrate films?

The decomposition process of the nitrate films

Analogue media do not last forever, but the durability of nitrate films is particularly limited and their decomposition extremely dangerous. Nitrate films decompose themselves in several steps. This process releases acidic, pungent-smelling gases that are extremely toxic and not only harmful to you, but can also damage any photos, slides or videos stored nearby. Decomposed nitrate films already ignite at 38 degrees. Heat accumulates in attics and warm air cannot escape, so high temperatures quickly occur.

How to recognise nitrate films: The single steps of decomposition:

  1. The nitrate film releases acidic substances and attracts attention with pungent gases.
  2. The silver image fades, the emulsion turns brownish and begins to stick.
  3. The emulsion softens and becomes bubbly. A strong smell becomes noticeable.
  4. The nitrate film sticks together completely.
  5. The carrier disintegrates into a brown powder with an acrid smell.

Complicated identification procedure for nitrate films

But how can you be sure whether your analogue media are actually nitrate films? It is possible, with some prior knowledge, to distinguish the films visually or acoustically. Nitrate films can be recognised visually, as described above, by the fact that they often turn yellow or brown over the years and due to decomposition.

In addition, the material of nitrate films shrinks very irregularly, what results in wavy films. Nitrate films can also be identified acoustically: If you bend on corner of the film and let it snap back, you will hear an almost tinny sound.

However, it is best to consult a professional to determine if your media are nitrate films!

The rescue: Have films digitised at MEDIAFIX

Let’s start with the bad news: it doesn’t matter how well you store your analogue films, over time they will deteriorate. The colours will become pale or change until at some point the motifs are irrevocably destroyed. That is why the timely digitisation of old analogue media is so important. The digital images cannot decay any further and can be archived and used in many ways.

So what are you waiting for? Save your memories – at MEDIAFIX with the best quality and best-price-guarantee!

Do you have any questions? Our friendly customer service will be happy to advise you in a personal conversation.
Simply call 020 3904438-0

Our phone hours are:

Mon-Fri 10.00 a.m. - 3.00 p.m.


  • Fachinformationen des Bundesarchives (
  • Das Lexikon der Filmbegriffe (