Tough Last Year for Some Old Photos & Slides
It’s been a long and rough past 12 months for the photos and slides someone just dropped off to the office to get digitized.
Although they look very much like other collections we see, these treasured memories captured onto 35mm slides and photographic prints more than 40 years ago have a horror tale to tell. Microscopic invaders have been aggressively attacking them for nearly a year!
The Invasion Began on 9/11
Last year as the rest of the U.S. remembered the fateful day when 4 passenger airliners were hijacked by a band of radicals set on delivering criminal acts of terror, a very different kind of threat was sweeping over Florida. It was Hurricane Irma. The devastating storm ultimately leaving in its wake a swath of damages totaling $50 billion, according to United States Department of Commerce’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
6.5 million Floridians evacuated. The hurricane’s strong winds crippled the power grid with 73% of all subscribers losing electricity. Heavy rain and storm surges destroyed or damaged at least 65,500 structures. This included the home of our newest client and his collection of pictures.
Taking Steps to Prevent the Next Time
Having ridden out Irma also, the story was unfortunately too familiar. We listened to the story about the massive oak tree falling on our client’s house punching several gaping holes into its roof. Then there was dealing the water, both from roof leaks and street flooding. This was followed by months spent restoring damage of the aftermath. Now after all of that, it was finally time to address all the family photos.
Luckily the entire collection rode out the storm safe and sound in a hall closet, according to the information the client was sharing. They wanted to transform all these treasured memories into high-quality digital images, so the whole family could enjoy and share them with one another. Plus, they could be safely kept from harm. “After all,” our newest client commented, “we do live in Florida, and another storm or other natural disaster could strike anytime doing them in for good.”
That’s when we opened up the first box of slides together!
Not So Safe – Not So Sound!
It seems the hall closet had not been as secure a place for these photographs as initially thought. The high humidity from the leaky roof and flooding had become trapped in the warm and darkened recesses of the closet. The result was immediately evident when we had started opening the boxes of photographic items. Staring back at us were all different types and colors of mold and mildew spreading out over the collection like invading marauders.
Immediately our rifling through the many boxes of pictures halted. Some large plastic bags were located, and the entire collection was wrapped up then securely sealed. This new development meant this collection was going to need some ‘special’ care!
It was time to do some homework.
What follows are some of the facts this Photo Organizer learned about dealing with mold infested photo collections, what 5 things are needed to remain safe when working with these items, and the steps it took to neutralize the mold to complete the digitization project.
What is Mold?
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “Molds produce tiny spores to reproduce. Mold spores waft through the indoor and outdoor air continually. When mold spores land on a damp spot indoors, they may begin growing and digesting whatever they are growing on in order to survive. There are molds that can grow on wood, paper, carpet, and foods. When excessive moisture or water accumulates indoors, mold growth will often occur, particularly if the moisture problem remains undiscovered or un-addressed. There is no practical way to eliminate all mold and mold spores in the indoor environment; the way to control indoor mold growth is to control moisture.” 1
The Photo Organizer needs to know about the nature of mold. It’s everywhere. Preventing growth infestations means eliminating excessive moisture and keeping wet areas dry. Indoor humidity should be regulated to 30-60%. Increased ventilation, using air conditioners, HEPA filtration and dehumidifiers can all be used to help achieve this goal.
Can Mold Causes Health Problems?
The EPA is clear about potential health risks from exposure to mold. “Molds have the potential to cause health problems. Molds produce allergens (substances that can cause allergic reactions), irritants, and in some cases, potentially toxic substances (mycotoxins). Inhaling or touching mold or mold spores may cause allergic reactions in sensitive individuals. Allergic responses include hay fever-type symptoms, such as sneezing, runny nose, red eyes, and skin rash (dermatitis). Allergic reactions to mold are common. They can be immediate or delayed.
Molds can also cause asthma attacks in people with asthma who are allergic to mold. In addition, mold exposure can irritate the eyes, skin, nose, throat, and lungs of both mold-allergic and non-allergic people. Symptoms other than the allergic and irritant types are not commonly reported as a result of inhaling mold. Research on mold and health effects is ongoing.”2
The Photo Organizer needs to know preventing health problems from mold infested photo collections means handling them with care. They can make you sick. Mold hazards include allergic reactions, asthma flare-ups, and irritation.
Removing Mold Growth on Printed Photos, Slides, & Negatives?
Mold presents in either an active (wet) or inactive (dry) state. Mold brings potential hazards with it in either of these states. The damage caused by the mold to photographic items can be permanent if left untreated. However, there are things you can do to take care of mold infestation on printed photographs, slides, and negatives.
Sometimes it may be necessary to contact a professional conservator for advice or conservation treatment. To find a conservator, check with the American Institute for Conservation of Historic & Artistic Works (AIC). These conservation professionals strive to attain the highest possible standards in all aspects of conservation by adhering to established ethics and standards.
The Photo Organizer needs to know it is possible to remove mold from photographic materials. However, this chore requires having the right tools in their organizing toolbox and understanding when to use them.
Armed with an enhanced understanding of what mold is, the potential health hazards it can present, and how with the proper tools mitigation is possible, we set out to digitize our newest client’s collection of printed photographs, slides, and negatives.
The project turned out great!
5 Items a Photo Organizer Really Needs When Handling Moldy Photos
Care must be taken in the removal of mold on printed photographs, slides, and negatives. It is always important to minimize the handling of the items. Only perform remediation work in an adequately vented area, while wearing appropriate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to avoid the hazards of coming into direct skin contact with mold spores, or inhaling them if thrust airborne from handling the items.
- Tyvek Disposable Coveralls (available in packs of 5 – Cost $25)
- Protective Eyewear (available in boxes of 12 – Cost $15)
- Dust Mask (available in boxes of 50 – Cost $10)
- Hand Protection – Disposable Nitrile Gloves (available in boxes of 100 – Cost $10)
- PEC-12/PEC*PADS (available in 32 oz & 100 count packs – Cost $90)
How We Did It
- Everything that came into contact with the moldy items during the process ended up discarded in a large 55-gallon sized heavy duty plastic trash bag. We purchased a box from our supercenter discount store and bags filled with discarded items throughout each day of the project got removed immediately to outside trash containers.
- With each team member working on this project wearing appropriate PPE (coveralls, eye, hand, and respiratory protection), the collection was removed from the sealed bags they were hastily placed into when the mold infestation was discovered and put on a work table. The table was completely covered with a plastic tablecloth material cut of the 100′ roll we purchased from a local restaurant supply shop.
- A True HEPA filter unit was installed to keep airborne mold spores from ‘going rogue’ and escaping to other parts of the office. A dehumidifier helped bring the overall moisture content within the workspace to under 45%. These were purchased from a home supply center.
- Items were handled as few times as possible. They were initially separated into types (printed photos, 35mm slides, and negatives). Then, each category evaluated for the severity of mold infestation and whether the mold was active (wet) mold or inactive (dry).
- Having learned that the UV from sunlight or fluorescent lights kills active mold (it does not kill dormant mold spores), we laid out the different groupings of active mold items onto large baking trays covered with glassine paper, cut off a roll purchased online from a shipping materials supplier. The trays were then placed outside for 20 minutes so the UV from the sun could kill the active mold. Note: It is essential to maintain a strict time frame to avoid this action from inducing further fading or damaging the items.
- Once all the items were deemed only to contain inactive (dry) mold they were taken in groupings to an outside cleaning station we set up and individually passed under the air-flare nozzle of a Metro DataVac to dust off the dry mold spores using its continuous 70 CFM airflow.
- The next step was to undergo a thorough cleaning in a designated cleaning station set up in our office for this purpose. Each mold infested item was cleaned using PEC-12, a waterless Photographic Emulsion Cleaner suitable for use on most film and print emulsions. It was applied using PEC*PADS. An item was wiped once utilizing a light pass, and each pad was rotated to expose a clean area each time. This allowed 2-3 uses of each pad before being tossed into our 55-gallon trash bags.
- Printed photos and negatives were wiped completely, front and back.
- 35mm slides were removed from their slide holders, the slide film cleaned front and back, then remounted into a new slide holder since the mold was impossible to effectively remove from the paper slide mounts after being impregnated with mold spores.
- When cleaning was completed, the items were taken outside and once again passed under the air-flare nozzle of the Metro DataVac.
- Finally, the items were relocated to the scanning area of the office and digitized. The scanning equipment was frequently cleaned and all cleaning items adequately discarded.
- To discouraged the reactivation of any inactive mold spores on the physical items, when completed, we carefully wrapped the items up into groups using the glassine paper, sealing them with single-sided Scotch™ Acid-Free Photo and Document Tape. Then, these sealed groupings were returned to the client in new photo storage boxes, along with their digital images.
Like to Learn More?
Here are some additional resources on dealing with moldy photos and slides.
- Mold: Evaluation of Risk and Decontamination, American Institute for Conservation of Historic & Artistic Works
- Mold and Mildew, Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute
- A Guide to Fiber-base Gelatin Silver Print Condition and Deterioration, v1.1, George Eastman House, International Museum of Photography and Film Image Permanence Institute, Rochester Institute of Technology
If you need help organizing and preserving your lifetime of photos, videos, and keepsakes, find a photo organizer near you at the Association of Personal Photo Organizers.
Don’t forget to grab your copy of Photo Organizing Made Easy: Going from Overwhelmed to Overjoyed from APPO founder Cathi Nelson.
Trained as a radiologic technologist, Richard “Rick” Lippert of E-Z Photo has taken hundreds of thousands of pictures – of people’s insides! But that was not always the case. As a small child, Rick and his dad would convert the bathroom of the family home into a photo darkroom where they developed the pictures they took with their 35mm film cameras. So, while he appreciates the art & science of medical imaging, Rick definitely enjoys his new found passion of helping people to keep, save, protect & share their treasured photos and documents through scanning
For those wanting to learn more about using the Photosol products check out this video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9iEKgNInK-E. Need options for remounting slides? https://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/search?Ntt=%22slide%20mounts%22&N=0&InitialSearch=yes&sts=ma&Top+Nav-Search=
Would you happen to know if old color prints (ca. 20-50 years old) can cause headaches? They are not moldy, but they do have a decidedly ‘off’ and very strong smell to them. Thank you for any light you can shed on the subject!