The team at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU), headed by Professor Joanna Verran recently reported their finding to the Society for General Microbiology autumn meeting (September 2010). Research student Gavin Bingley presented his work describing how they collected a range of contaminated film from archives at the North West Film Archive and the British Film Institute National Archives and subjected the film to mock inspections, much as an archivist would carry out with a view to assessing the film for further preservation work. On the worst affected films the levels of spores released during this process where considered to be dangerous to health - Aspergillus was a common fungus found and is a known allergen & pathogen..
Traditionally photographic film is largely made out of cellulose & gelatin and as such is vulnerable to microbial attack if not stored correctly. Any damp getting into the film stock can quickly lead to fungal growth as the gelatin makes an excellent food source. Older films are thus actively collected and assessed for damage. Many (most) have already been lost and many techniques have been developed to halt this loss with a lot of resources now going into preserving what is left, hopefully forever.
The MMU group are working to assist the safe continuation of this valuable work by developing a sensor that will indicate if viable mould is present in a can of film and thus signal to the person handling the film whether or not it is safe to open the can without taking further precautions e.g. using an airflow hood to suck spores away from the person concerned and face masks designed to prevent inhalation of mould spores.
Of course even if there is no viable fungal material present then there could still be dead fungal matter that could be released into the air and could still cause allergy problems, so an assessment of the past state of the film is also important from the point of view of the health of the people working on the film. The MMU team are also working on standard recommendations for the safety of people handling mouldy film, viable or not.