The formation of radicals in poly(vinyl alcohol), PVA, powder irradiated at 77 K by gamma -rays and the transformations of these radicals during photolysis with visible wavelengths and on thermal annealing have been studied. After irradiation a four-line ESR spectrum was observed. It was assigned to a triplet of the C-alpha-radical (38%), with a splitting of 3.27 mT, superimposed on a doublet (62%) with a splitting of 2.7 mT. The doublet appears to be composed of two radicals, one of which is photo-bleachable (58%) and the other which is not photo-bleachable (42%). This suggests that the latter radical is a neutral radical. The photo-bleachable component of the doublet has been assigned to a carbonyl anion radical. but the second doublet due to a neutral radical is unassigned. The total G-value for formation of radicals at 77 K was found to be 2.41 +/- 0.03. Upon illumination with visible light, the anion radicals were removed and the doublet components or the spectrum diminished in intensity, while the three-line spectrum of the C-alpha-radical became more clearly visible. This transition was due to the photo-detachment of electrons from traps which were proposed to be located on carbonyl groups in the polymer resulting from incomplete hydrolysis of the vinyl acetate. The photo-decay of the anion radicals could be satisfactorily described by a two-stage process. The first stage comprised the decay of approximately 80% of the anion radicals present, while the second stage was associated with the decay of the remaining 20%. Subsequent thermal annealing of a photolysed sample to 290 K led to a change in the shape of the spectrum to form a more clearly defined triplet, As the doublet of the neutral radical decays on thermal annealing between 150 and 250K, the C-alpha-radical is formed. (C) 2001 Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved.