Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Vinegar Syndrome: Breyer Shrinkies and Oozies

Over the Christmas break, I flew down to Atlanta to visit my family. Between delicious meals slathered in gravy, my sister and I started inventorying our collections. They have been in storage in my parents' basement for more than 10 years now, and given that I've been collecting since the early 1980s and my sister since the late 1980s, we knew we were doomed to find some shrinkies/oozies.

What exactly are shrinkies and oozies? Both names are used to refer to Breyer models that are beginning to disintegrate from a problem that seems to be akin to vinegar syndrome in film. Like some kinds of film, many Breyers were made of a kind of plastic called cellulose acetate, and they are likewise starting to break down on a molecular level. The problem has only cropped up in the last few years, and so far, the only models that seem to be affected are those that were produced from around 1987-1992. (It is certainly possible that models may crop up from outside that range of years, but let's hope not many.) Not all models from those years are affected though, and it stands to reason that the affected models were made from a defective batch (or batches) of plastic.

Symptoms of vinegar syndrome include shrinking of the model in height and width, warping, slow implosion of the body cavity, legs that warp inward, paint discoloration (it gets lighter), a whitish film on the model that feels like chalk dust or soft powder, a strong vinegar smell, liquid oozing from the plastic, yellowing of white plastic areas, and in extreme cases, bubbling and collapse of the model.

Unfortunately, at this time, there is no known method to stop vinegar syndrome. So far, models that have been kept out in the open air tend to just slowly shrink and warp without any of the uglier symptoms. But as this is a recent development for Breyers, we don't yet know exactly what will eventually happen. Models kept in storage and models exposed to heat and humidity are much more likely to ooze and frequently go through the full gamut of symptoms.

My sister and I found more affected models than I would have liked, all in varying stages of decay. None of them are especially valuable (other than my red bay 1988 Your Horse Source SR Phar Lap), but many of them have sentimental value. Here are a few of the victims:

These two Mustangs are both examples of #118, the "American Mustang," made from 1987-1989. I purchased the one on the right on sale at a Breyer signing party in 1990. The one on the left was a flea market acquisition, and at the time I bought him, he was not overtly affected by vinegar syndrome. He was lighter in body color and mane and tail color, a common variation of the run, but he was not nearly so light-colored as he looks now. In person, he is a textbook shrinky/oozy. He is smaller than his normal counterpart and starting to curve to one side, he is leaking goo from various places, and he has the tell-tale paint fading that is so typical of vinegar syndrome horses. From what I've seen, the lighter discoloration often seems to start where the model's legs meet the hollow body, as evidenced here.

Sadly, my awesomely eye-scorching neon palomino FAS is also a shrinky (purchased 1987 or 1988). He was signed by Peter Stone in 1990, and as you can see, the decomposition of his plastic has turned the once crisp signature into a blurry grey haze. His delightful lemon yellow color has also faded.

The bag he was in is full of oozy droplets.

And here's a close up of my sister's #702 buckskin variation Stretch Morgan (1988-1989). His paint hasn't faded too much yet, but you can see he's oozing and the plastic is starting to crinkle.

Sadly, he was one of my sister's favorite models. I was going to give her my own buckskin variation as a replacement, but alas, he is a shrinky, too.

For some reason, the #821 Rocky (1990-1992) pony is one I have seen several times over in spectacularly bad shape. This example, provided by longtime collector Penny Lehew, is bubbling and showing signs of crystalization. (My own Rocky has not reached this stage, but he was bad enough that I didn't even dare to open his bag.)

When removed from storage or from hot and humid conditions, affected models generally seem to stop oozing. My #109 dapple grey Five-Gaiter (1987-1988) was found swimming in brown goo in his bag when he was removed from storage several years ago. His white areas had yellowed and he had begun to shrink. He was then washed thoroughly and left on a tray on a shelf in the open air to see what would happen. Interestingly, he has stopped oozing, and his white areas have brightened up. He has continued to shrink, however, and as you can see in the picture below, he is beginning to curl sideways.

Happily, not all models from 1987-1992 are affected, and contrary to some early reports, vinegar syndrome is not contagious from model to model. For example, my Cips has turned out to be a shrinky, but my sister's Cips is fine. My Sears SR Black Blanket Appaloosa Performance Horse is oozing like mad, but the other two horses from that set who were stored in the same box are still normal.

It's taken around 20 years for these models to begin to manifest symptoms of vinegar syndrome, and there's no way to predict whether or not the currently unaffected models from those years will remain thus. Certain models do seem to be more likely to be affected, such as the 1987 Black Horse Ranch SR Proud Arabian Stallions, but because they were small runs of only 500 pieces per color, it stands to reason that many were made from the same batch of bad plastic. Because this is such a new issue with the 1987-1992 era Breyers, only time will tell which models will be affected.