What in the World Is in Mothballs? Should I Be on the Lookout for Safer Alternatives?

Q: Call me crazy (my name’s actually Annie) but I’m one of those homeowners who embraces spring cleaning with open arms. I like nothing more when mid-March hits and I can finally open my windows, let the dust out and really get to the nitty gritty. That said, I may be a bit older (I’ll be 78 years young next month) than some of your readers and I’ve been admittedly a bit slow to adapt to all those newfangled, “natural” home-keeping products on the market. What can I say? I’m an old-fashioned gal ... I use what I’ve always used out of both habit and because, well, they’ve always worked for me. In my case, you can teach an old horse new tricks but it just takes a bit of cajoling. And maybe some baked goods.

Part of my annual spring cleaning ritual involves replacing mothballs (the brand I use even labels them as “old-fashioned”) in a few of my closets and in the attic to ward away not only moths but rodents and other pests. I’ve been using them as long as I can remember without incident but when I recently mentioned them to my daughter-in-law, I sure got an earful. She seemed to think they were filled with dangerous chemicals. News to me! I suppose it’s finally time to find out exactly what my mothballs are made of. Can you fill me in? And you might as well try cajoling me into less “dangerous” mothball alternatives so that my grandkids are allowed to come over again!

No, my daughter-in-law is not standing over me as I write this,

— Annie, Astoria, Ore.

A: Hey Annie,

Thanks for writing! It’s great to hear you’re enthusiastic about one of my favorite times of year, spring cleaning time, and that you’re interested in learning more about a longtime staple in your home: mothballs.

Well, I have some news that you might not want to hear: Your daughter-in-law is right. Mothballs, in fact, are little balls of chemical pesticides. Effective? Perhaps, but I’d use them with caution, especially if you have pets (and grandkids) running amok around the house. Dangerous? Potentially, so I suggest you consider using something else to keep moths and other pests at bay. I can’t promise you baked goods, but I’ll cajole you the best that I can.

So, as mentioned, traditional mothballs are little balls of pesticides and deodorant made from two rather stinky and dangerous chemicals, either naphthalene or paradichlorobenzene, although the former has been mostly phased out due to issues of flammability. Both ingredients work the same way: They start out solid and turn into a vapor that’s extremely toxic to moths and moth larvae.

Your daughter-in-law might be so up in arms because both naphthalene and paradichlorobenzene are considered to be possible human carcinogens and, furthermore, mothballs can be fatal if ingested. I’m not sure how old your grandchildren are, but with their curious smell and shape, mothballs could be mistaken for candy particularly if they also contain sweet-smelling camphor. If your grandkids are a bit older, I should point out that solvent abuse isn’t that uncommon with mothballs. I’m certainly not suggesting that your grandkids, if on the younger side, will put anything in their mouths or that if they’re teenagers, that they’re potential mothball huffers. I just thought I’d cover all the bases.

In terms of nontoxic mothball alternatives, I’d recommend trying out cedar balls, blocks, shavings, or even oil if you haven’t already. The smell of cedar is way easier on human noses than traditional mothballs plus moths hate the stuff, making it highly effective. You could also try making your own homemade sachets filled with lavender — another natural moth repellent that won’t fill your closets with toxic fumes — and place them wherever moths might be tempted to nibble on your woolens.

I’m not sure how I can further cajole you with this one, Annie. I think the evidence, mothballs are highly toxic, possibly carcinogenic and not to mention bad for the environment, speaks for itself. I suppose it would also help to tell you that alternatives like cedar and lavender aren’t terribly more expensive than a box o’ mothballs. They also aren’t particularly hard to find (you could even try growing your own lavender!)

I realize that change can be difficult particularly when you’ve been doing the same thing for so long, but when the alternatives are so easy, affordable and beneficial, there’s really no reason why you shouldn’t try them out. Make 2010’s spring cleaning season the season to mothball those mothballs once and for all.

— Matt

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