Are CDs Rotting Away?

Indestructible technology shows its age

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The Bar-Kays' "Greatest Hits," a soul CD on Michele Youket's desk at the Library of Congress, has seen better days. On its surface are dozens of tiny holes and rusted-out blotches, making it resemble a chrome bumper that's been left to rot in a junkyard. Youket has many CDs like that -- one, by the New Age artist Paul Winter, has shed its silvery surface, leaving only a transparent disc with a printed logo on top.

Youket's music collection, stored in her windowless subbasement office in Washington, D.C., has implications for every CD buyer and record company in the world. She is the lead scientist on the library's four-year-long project testing the life span of compact discs, a twenty-two-year-old technology once touted as indestructible. It's the first major public study of its kind; upon the release of its findings, the library will decide whether to shift its large CD-ROM collection to another medium.

And as the blotchy Bar-Kays album shows, CDs are, in fact, destructible. "Oh, definitely," says Youket, who works in the library's Preservation Research and Testing Division. "Everything organic degrades."

How soon CDs wear out is a much more complicated -- and controversial -- question. The discs on Youket's desk have undergone 150-plus-degree humidity "soaks" in the library's ovens to accelerate their age. Youket can't say how many years of aging these ovens simulate, but the library's scientists estimate poorly made CDs may deteriorate after as little as five or ten years, while better-made discs could last up to a century. The Bar-Kays CD came out in 1998 on K-Tel, and Winter's 1987 Earthbeat was on a small, low-budget label. Although some major-label releases similarly wore out after being soaked, a 1996 Sony disc by soul singer Puff Johnson showed only minimal damage.

Experts say today's music CDs are built for longevity -- but only as long as they're kept in cases, unscratched, at room temperature, away from extreme moisture. "If it's stored carefully, it'd probably come close to a human's lifetime," says Alan Sahakian, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Northwestern University. Adds Jerry Hartke, president of Media Sciences, a CD-quality testing facility, "The error correction in those things is so powerful you can actually drill a two-millimeter hole in the thing, and it'll still play."

The CD-deterioration issue resurfaced in early May, when Dan Koster, Web-content manager at Queens University of Charlotte in North Carolina, told an Associated Press reporter he'd discovered a "constellation of pinpricks" in hundreds of his properly stored collection of more than 2,000 CDs. Youket contacted Koster -- her Bar-Kays album showed similar pinpricklike defects. Does that mean all CDs will develop deadly pricks over time? No, says Chandru Shahani, chief of Youket's division: "CDs are sturdy. We're not trying to scare people. We'd like to guide the industry into putting out a more stable product."