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I brought naphthalene mothballs into my home. It didn't end well. Here's what you need to know about chemical mothballs before you do the same.

So, this is the story of what inspired me to wonder whether 'harmless' household chemicals can cause 'occupational bronchitis' and if over-the-counter medications can treat chronic bronchitis. I've been a health writer for quite some time now. You'd think that would have made me more health conscious in my personal life, and — in many ways — it has. People sometimes do silly things though, and I'm no exception. I knew mothballs contained nasty chemicals, and not much else about them.

What I did know is that my dear cousin spent nine months "gestating" the thing I was trying to protect, a king-sized and wonderfully colorful crocheted wool blanket. She washed, dyed, carded, spun, twined, and crocheted the whole thing — the only part of the process she wasn't involved in was actually shearing the sheep the blanket's wool came from. It was a master piece, and it was her baby. I wasn't gonna let the moths I'd seen around the house that had already led to the demise of some scarves she'd knitted get at it, so when lavender didn't turn out to actually do a darn thing to banish the moths, I picked a packet of naphthalene mothballs up from one of the Chinese shops that are so ubiquitous where I live. 

I should have thrown them out when my friend had to use her asthma inhaler upon entering my apartment, despite the fact that the mothballs were only in my bedroom, but I didn't. A week or so later, I found myself laying in bed unable to breathe and to sleep. No amount of hot, steamy showers, herbal teas, cough sweets, or licorice made it any better. Things got worse as the night went on. Constant, mucus-producing, painful, coughing. Wheezing. Terrible, frightening, shortness of breath.

Suspecting the mothballs were to blame, I barely managed to throw them out, just as I barely managed to call my doctor for an immediate appointment. I was diagnosed with irritant bronchitis, an acute inflammation of the lining of the bronchial tubes [1], and prescribed medication. 

All is well now, though the fact that I immediately started wheezing and coughing after entering a Chinese shop that sold mothballs leads me to suspect that some permanent damage might have occurred. Now, newly informed about the topic, I get to warn you about the dangers of mothballs, in the hope that you can avoid a similar — or even worse — ordeal.

Mothballs: What You Need To Know About The Health Risks Before Bringing Them Into Your Home

Mothballs are nearly entirely made up of their active ingredient. "Mine" was naphthalene, and the other common one is paradichlorobenzene. This warning from the US National Pesticide Information Center should be enough to put you off for life: "Mothballs slowly turn from solids to toxic vapor. When you smell mothballs, you are inhaling the insecticide." [2] In case it isn't, there's more. 

The specific health risks of exposure to paradichlorobenzene, which is used in deodorizers and fumigants as well as mothballs, include:

  • Short-term exposure: Headaches, nausea and vomiting, fatigue, dizziness, and respiratory irritation [4].
  • Long-term exposure or acute after ingesting a product containing the chemical: "Aplastic anemia, hepatic insufficiency, acute renal failure, pulmonary granulomatosis and neurotoxicity" [5]. These effects have been known to occur after someone has ingested mothballs, the aforementioned study notes, and it goes on to point out that specific consequences may include loss of vision, memory loss, psychomotor retardation, and coma. 
  • Paradichlorobenzene may also be carcinogenic. [4]

The health risks of short-term exposure to naphthalene include all those mentioned above, as well as hemolytic anemia (in which blood cells stop functioning properly), diarrhea, abdominal cramps, liver damage, neurological damage (in infants), and lung disease of various kinds. Workers who are exposed to naphthalene over a long period of time — either by way of mothballs or because they work in wood preservation, tanning, the ink and dye production industry, or in coal-tar production — are further at risk of developing cataracts and even cancer. [6, 7]

    OK, But I Still Don't Want Moths To Keep Bugging Me

    Once you discover that chemical mothballs aren't the health equivalent of using a DEET-based insect repellent, and the pros definitely don't outweigh the cons, you'll either throw yours out or — hopefully — never get them in the first place. You'll still want to keep your clothes and other natural fibers intact, however. How can you get rid of moths safely?

    While a 1940 study suggests keeping moths away from materials you really want to preserve by using "bait" materials [8], our own modern world has a few more tricks up its sleeve. They come in the form of vacuum-sealed plastic bags and airtight containers — sans mothballs. Another very important thing to keep in mind is that clothes moths strive in dark environments where they can have some "privacy" as well. Cupboards, drawers in your bed, and similarly dark and undisturbed places are perfect for them. That consequently makes them much less attractive as locations in which you can store your winter stuff over the summer. A clear plastic box sitting in your bedroom might be a lot better. It is also important to launder your fabric before storing them, thereby making them less attractive to moths. Natural moth repellents exist, but I haven't personally had much luck with them.

    On your way to finding the perfect way to deter moths, above all else, one thing is clear — the risks chemical mothballs pose to your health aren't worth it, even if you have precious things to protect. 

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