Moth balls are small chemical products used when storing clothing or other items that may be damaged by mold or moths. They are typically made from naphthalene, a hydrocarbon derived from coal tar, that easily exudes gas, thus acting as a fumigant. Moth balls often look like gumballs or candy and therefore can be a danger to both children and pets, as they can be fatal if swallowed; another drawback is that these gases must build to high concentrations to be effective, and this can be dangerous to a person's health. If using naphthalene balls, it may be best to store clothing in an air tight container along with the moth balls to avoid over-exposure to the fumes, and all clothing should be fully aired out or washed before wearing.
This moth and mold deterrent is typically most efficient if stored with items in an airtight container for a minimum of seven days. On average, a package of balls will treat an area of about 43.7 cubic feet (1.237 cubic meters). The product should work for as long as it is kept sealed in an airtight container, but once the container is opened and the items are aired, it is most likely that the deterrent will no longer be effective. Many major home improvement stores sell two versions of this product — the moth ball and the moth crystal — and they can also be found on the Internet. Both serve the same purpose and are used the same way, but the crystal version is usually made with an even more toxic chemical.
Risks of Exposure
Moth balls made with naphthalene are toxic and high levels of exposure may cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, blood in the urine, or jaundice. Naphthalene can also kill red blood cells — though the body can replace them, in the interim the condition is referred to as hemolytic anemia. Hospitals have reported a high incidence of hemolytic anemia in newborns and small children who were dressed in clothing or wrapped in blankets that had been stored in naphthalene moth balls. In pregnant women, naphthalene can transfer from the mother's bloodstream into the bloodstream of her unborn baby. The toxin has also been detected in breast milk, though not in quantities that are thought to be of concern. Naphthalene has also been linked to nasal cancer.
Moth crystals are another version of a moth ball, but they are made from paradichlorobenzene (PDB), which is considered more toxic than naphthalene. This chemical also sublimates easily and clothes should again be kept in a sealed container along with the PDB. Prolonged exposure of PDB vapors on plastics may melt them, affecting some sweater boxes and other types of plastic; it is therefore not recommended to use on clothes with plastic buttons or decorations. The effects on humans of PDB are not well-known, but related compounds do have associated health risks, and it is a suspected human carcinogen, causing cancer in animals. The same precautions apply to both versions of these moth and mold deterrents: all goods should be fully aired or washed before wearing or using, and minimum exposure is recommended.
Due to the poisonous nature of moth balls and moth crystals, they should not be used as air fresheners, though many air fresheners are made with naphthalene or PDB. In fact, many people even prefer to use safer, more natural remedies to rid themselves of pesky moth larvae that can eat holes through woolen sweaters, coats and blankets.
Here are some alternatives to help save valued items without resorting to poisonous moth balls or moth crystals:
- Run items through a warm clothes dryer to kill any moth eggs, or if possible, periodically air them in the hot sun.
- Shake out and brush woolen items every three to four weeks. Clean items prior to storage as moth larvae rely on human soil, like perspiration residue, for essential vitamins missing from pristine wool.
- Store clean, off-season items in airtight containers.
- Freeze infested items in a tightly sealed bag for 48 hours; thaw at room temperature, and repeat. Once fully thawed and dry, seal in an airtight container for storage.
Storing susceptible items in a cedar chest will help reduce damage caused by moths or mold. Cedar oil is a natural repellent of insects like moths; however, many older cedar chests no longer have enough aroma left to do the job. On the other hand, if the chest seals well and smells strongly of cedar, it will probably be a safe place to store items.
Other alternatives to moth balls include natural moth repellent sachets that can be made with herbs available at health food stores. The herbs are combined, ground, and sometimes used with oils, then wrapped in small swatches of material and tied with a ribbon or sewn shut. The sachets are then tossed in drawers or hung from hangers in the closet. Some herbs that are used for repelling moths are lavender, lemon, and santolina. There are many recipes online for a variety of moth repellent sachets, which can also be purchased online or from many health food stores.