Mothballs Can be Dangerous—Here’s How to Keep Your Family Safe

Lawrence Bonk
Written by Lawrence Bonk
Updated July 20, 2021
Little boy, toddler play with dog on bed
Cavan Images / Cavan via Getty Images

Most mothballs are made from harmful chemicals and should be kept out of reach from pets and children

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Mothballs have been around for so long that many people instinctively buy some when they realize they have clothes moths, carpet beetles, silverfish, or a related pests. However, mothballs contain a variety of chemical pesticides, deodorants, and air fresheners, and they can become a health hazard with long-term exposure.

Here are some of the things to consider as you decide whether or not to use standard mothballs, especially if you have kids or pets in your home.

Mothballs Are Usually Made From Dangerous Chemicals and Pesticides

Mothballs are an old-school pest deterrent and, as such, are made from potentially harmful chemicals and pesticides. There is no single active ingredient used in all mothballs, as the term encapsulates a wide variety of products. There are two common active ingredients, however, each with its own health risks.

Naphthalene

Manufacturers source this oil from crude oil or coal, and it has been primarily used as an insecticide for decades. Naphthalene works by releasing toxic gas into an indoor environment. Naphthalene mothballs do a great job at staving off unwanted pests and animals but can also cause adverse health effects. According to the CDC, long-term exposure to naphthalene can cause headaches, nausea, vomiting, and even death.

Additionally, naphthalene is extremely flammable and is a fire hazard. Fortunately, the U.S. has banned the chemical for most uses, though some companies have figured out ways around this ban.

Paradichlorobenzene

This chemical is a fumigant insecticide and pest repellent that has been widely used in the United States since 1942. Paradichlorobenzene, otherwise known as 1,4-dichlorobenzene, is commonly found in mothballs.

These solid mothballs break down into toxic gas that is highly effective at killing moths and related insects. Paradichlorobenzene can cause adverse health effects even with short-term exposure, especially when touched. Paradichlorobenzene-related symptoms include eye and nasal irritation, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, fatigue, and headaches. This chemical can also cause kidney and liver damage in pets if accidentally ingested.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has classified this chemical as “possibly carcinogenic” to humans, though the EPA has classified it as "not likely to be carcinogenic to humans."

Alternatives to Standard Mothballs

Now the good news. There are plenty of ways to combat moths and other fiber-loving pests that do not require the use of dangerous chemicals. Here are a few ways you can tackle your pest problems without resorting to an old-school mothball.

Natural Mothballs

If you want a safer alternative to standard mothballs, go for a brand made from naturally occurring materials. These natural mothballs do not typically pose a danger to humans, but you should still check out the ingredient list to ensure they will be safe around pets.

Companies make natural mothballs with various substances that repel insects, including lavender, cedar chips, mint, camphor oil, and herbs such as thyme and rosemary. These safer mothballs are a good choice for preventing insects and could be the natural alternative you have been looking for.

Dryer Sheets, Chalk, and Other DIY Methods

If you are looking to protect clothing and storage containers from moths and other annoying bugs, there are plenty of DIY methods to try before you go for a standard mothball. Many swear by filling breathable cotton bags with herbs such as lavender to take advantage of its supposed natural antifungal and pest-repellent properties.

Folding dryer sheets between layers of clothing can also repel certain insects and will keep your outfits smelling fresh during the off-season. Tying a string around a bundle of chalk will prevent mustiness, which could, in turn, repel must-loving insects such as mites and fungal gnats. Finally, placing a simple cup of vinegar in an insect-infected closet can do wonders when it comes to repelling moths and when it comes to reducing musty odors.

Professional Pest and Animal Control

If errant rodents, snakes, or any other kind of animal have been using your basement or attic as a hidey-hole, it may be time to call in a local animal control expert. A qualified pro will remove any unwanted animals efficiently without using any dangerous chemicals. The use of mothballs to repel animals is actually illegal due to the aforementioned safety concerns. This is an “off-brand” use, as mothballs are only approved for repelling insects.

If you want to remove insects but you’re still looking for a “green option,” choose an eco-friendly pest control service.

Using Mothballs Safely

Of course, you can always use traditional mothballs to repel fiber-loving insects, as long as you practice caution and use recommended safety practices. Wear protective gloves as you handle mothballs and follow the label instructions to the letter. Never mix the active ingredients from two different kinds of mothballs, as this could cause a dangerous chemical reaction. Place mothballs in an airtight space, like a sealed garment bag, and avoid open areas such as attics, gardens, trash cans, vehicles, and crawl spaces. Finally, mothballs must be used as intended, to repel clothes moths, and cannot be used to repel animals and other pests.

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