RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—In 2008, the European Union banned the sale of mothballs containing the volatile chemical that gives them their classic smell—naphthalene. But here in the U.S., and in other parts of the world, the compound—classified as a possible human carcinogen—is still an insecticide widely used in mothballs. Now a group of Australian and New Zealand experts within the countries' Neonatal Network say naphthalene should be banned because it can cause brain damage in babies, particularly in children with a particular inherited deficiency.
THE DETAILS: Previous studies have found classic mothball chemicals pose serious health effects to adults, children, and pets exposed to the gaseous vapors. The risk is partly a result of ambiguous labeling that makes it difficult for consumers to use the product as directed. And for a particular group of people, the immediate health risk of exposure to mothballs is even greater, providing all the more reason to use nontoxic alternatives that have been proven to work. The Australian researchers estimate that about 5 percent of citizens of Asian, African, Middle Eastern, or Mediterranean descent live with a glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase deficiency. Babies with this deficiency who are exposed to mothballs containing naphthalene could experience "profound brain damage" or even death.
WHAT IT MEANS: Nobody wants to break out their long-stored winter wardrobe to find holes chewed through it by clothing moth larvae. But turning to toxic mothballs, which readily vaporize into household air, is far from the safest choice to protect your clothing. While the mothball chemical's association with infant brain damage is startling, the volatile nature of common mothball chemicals (naphthalene and paradichlorobenzene) suggests that it's in everyone's interest to keep these compounds out of the house. According to the National Pesticide Information Center, a project of the Environmental Protection Agency and Oregon State University, "When you smell mothballs, you are inhaling the insecticide." Mothballs are only supposed to be used in an airtight area, to prevent human or animal exposure. The problem is, most people don't use the product correctly, and at some point are exposed to the harmful fumes that have been linked to cancer and developmental and reproductive problems.
Here are tried-and-true mothball alternatives:
• Clean clothes correctly. Clothing moths like to feast on clothing made of animal fibers, such as wool, and on hair, dust, or stains and oil in unwashed clothing that's packed away for longer periods of time. Because of this, it's best to properly wash clothing before storing it in an airtight container for the season. (Check out Dry Clean Only? Nah, There Are Cheaper, Safer Ways to save money and avoid taking delicates to the dry cleaners, where toxic chemicals are often used.)
Published on: February 17, 2011
Updated on: February 18, 2011