Dear EarthTalk: Are mothballs safe to use? If not, are there any environmentally friendly alternatives?
—Anna Wiener, Dearborn, Michigan
Even though they are not as popular as they once were, mothballs are still used by many people to keep stored clothes, furniture and carpets free of hungry pests like moths. But the very ingredients that make mothballs so effective as household pesticides—namely naphthalene or paradichlorobenzene (PDB)—also make them dangerous to any person or animal who breathes the fumes or ingests them directly. Such chemicals are often listed as primary offenders when household air is tested for indoor air pollution.
Exposure to naphthalene or PDB can induce relatively minor human health problems such as nausea, vomiting, headache, coughing, burning eyes and shortness of breath. The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer considers both naphthalene and PDB to be hazardous carcinogens as well. These chemicals, which are also found in some dry cleaning agents as well as household air fresheners and solid toilet-bowl deodorizers, have been found to nearly double the risk of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma—a cancer of the blood—for those who come into frequent contact with them.
So what’s a conscientious homemaker to do? For starters, removing all mothballs and their flakes from the home is a good first step. Experts suggest donning gloves and even perhaps a mask before manually removing intact mothballs. Affected clothing can be machine-washed and dried several times, preferably on high heat settings. If the smell of mothballs continues to linger, any such clothes can be ironed—also with high heat settings, which tend to break down the active chemicals quicker. Sunlight also breaks down naphthalene and PDB, so leaving any affected items outside on hot sunny days may also help.
Carpets and upholstery co-mingled with mothballs should be vacuumed thoroughly, with vacuum cleaner bags containing mothball traces emptied immediately outdoors. If the mothball smell lingers after vacuuming, a professional cleaning might do the trick, although such services can introduce other harmful chemicals, such as the carcinogen perchloroethylene, into the household as well. (ChemDry and Zoots both offer in-home carpet and upholstery cleaning services that do not rely on harmful chemicals.) After any kind of mothball removal effort, the cleaned house or closet should be aired out, ideally with one or more fans blowing as much fresh outdoor air through as possible.
As to alternatives for keeping moths and other critters away from clothes and other valuable fabrics, Care2.com’s green home guru and author Annie Berthold-Bond suggests using home-made sachet pillows filled with a dried herb mixture combining two parts each of rosemary and mint, one part each of thyme and ginseng, and eight parts whole cloves. The herbs can be mixed and combined in the center of a bandana or handkerchief that is then tied with a ribbon and placed among the stored items. Also, Richards Housewares makes “Moth-Away Herbal Moth Repellant,” a pre-packaged product that makes use of a similar formula. It’s available from planetnatural.com and other online environmental product websites.