Are moth balls harming me or my family?

We are all familiar with the overpowering smell of moth balls, but are they harmful to our health?

Using mothballs to protect our precious garments from clothes moths has been common practice for many years, but how much do we know about the chemicals that are used to defend our clothing and their potential impact on our health.

Mothballs are generally made up of two chemicals, either naphthalene or paradichlorobenzene. Both these chemicals are solids which release a gas that is toxic to moths. To be effective they need to be placed with clothing in a sealed container so the fumes build up. Most of the exposure to these chemicals comes from breathing it into the lungs when the containers are opened or wearing clothes immediately after opening. Some chemicals may enter the body through ingestion if accidently swallowed, especially by young children.

Mothballs are believed to cause serious harm if chewed or eaten, causing a breakdown in red blood cells. In June this year, the New Zealand Ministry of Health banned the use of mothballs stating the “chemicals pose a significant health risk to the public if eaten or ingested.”(The Dominion Post, 2014). In 2011 there was a national call in Australia from medical professionals to ban the use of naphthalene in mothballs due to the risk of potential brain damage in babies (Tarnow-Mordi et al, 2011). However, mothballs are still available for purchase in Australia, but in a form that is designed to prevent them from being eaten.

If you have concerns about exposure to mothballs, you can minimise the risk to your health by:

  • Never sprinkling the contents of moth balls in closets, attics or storage areas
  • Opening containers outside and washing the clothes, letting them air before wearing
  • Using a less-toxic, safer alternative, for example cedar oil, chips or shavings

References:

Mothballs banned from sale. (04/06/2014). The Dominion Post. Retrieved from: http://www.stuff.co.nz/dominion-post/news/10118275/Mothballs-banned-from-sale

New South Wales Government Health. Naphthalene in Moth Balls and Toilet Deodorant Cakes. January 2011. Retrieved from: http://www.mhcs.health.nsw.gov.au/publicationsandresources/pdf/publication-pdfs/8780/doh-8780-eng.pdf

Tarnow-Mordi W.,Evans N., Lui K., and Darlow B. (2011). ‘Risk of brain damage in babies from naphthalene in mothballs: Call to consider a national ban.‘ Medical Journal of Australia, vol. 194, no. 3, pp. 150 – 150.

This post was prepared by Jen for the subject Screening and Monitoring in Occupational Health and Safety 2014

One comment

  1. Nice summary, thank you. I wonder what difference it would make if the mothballs were dyed baby-poo brown? Having them in plastic catridges also seems to be a good idea.

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