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JUNE 2007 / Links updated 2010
MOTHBALLED

Every so often during my childhood, my mother would send me down the long flight of stairs to the basement to fetch a dress from the storage closet. I always enjoyed this particular errand because the closet held, along with everyday clothing, many wondrous things -- stylish hats from bygone eras and beaded gowns in satins and silks. As I would slide Moths behind the door the door open and spy the finery, I felt as if I were entering an enchanted world. Then came the scent of its peculiar perfume: mothballs.

Through long association, the vaguely antiseptic smell came to signal for me the fantasy experience. Mothballs were my madeleines, conjuring not memories, as with Proust, but dreams. If not for that, I might never have considered using them this spring when a low-grade moth problem suddenly ballooned into a major infestation.

It is not a solution I would recommend.

When I scattered the mothballs about our small laundry room, which seemed to be Moth Central, I found the scent had lost whatever charm it once possessed. Now it signaled danger. I wondered whence came this new response. Were the chemicals different than before or was my nose simply better informed? Perhaps I was just imagining things. I decided to investigate.

I began by consulting the box. The mothballs were made with paradichlorobenzene (also known as 1,4 dichlorobenzene). Half the back panel was devoted to warnings -- about avoiding skin contact, not getting the substance on clothes, not allowing vapors to escape into occupied rooms, etc., along with related first aid instructions -- not a good sign.

Next, I consulted the EPA's Air Toxics Website. There I found that chronic exposure could affect the liver, skin and central nervous system. The chemical was also classified as a possible human carcinogen.

Naphthalene, the other pesticide commonly used in mothballs, was even worse. It presented all of the above risks, plus anemia and cataracts, as well as neurological damage to infants. Acute exposure could result in headache, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, malaise, confusion, anemia, jaundice, convulsions and coma. It, too, was classified as a possible human carcinogen.

Of course, "normal" usage would not result in acute exposure -- except perhaps in small children, who are also the ones most likely to get hold of a mothball and play with it or eat it. But many people use mothballs carelessly and to excess -- with the result that the whole house reeks of the stuff. (When you smell it, you are inhaling it.) In my own case, fumigating the laundry room with mothballs meant I was breathing the vapors whenever I did the laundry. This was clearly something to avoid -- but how else to get rid of the moths?

Meanwhile, the mothballs weren't even working. Days had passed and the insects were still around. Maybe I'd used too few mothballs for the space. I considered adding more -- because despite the dangers, there were only so many sweaters I could afford to lose -- but the tradeoff didn't seem worth it unless there was no other course.

I returned to the Web in search of practical advice and was enlightened on a key point. To cure an infestation, it is necessary to locate the specific sources. "The laundry room" wasn't specific enough. I needed to identify the infested items in the laundry room -- the ones with the holes or "mown" areas. (It turned out to be an old lambskin rug and other items stored in a wicker hamper.) I also learned that the moths, themselves, don't do the damage; their tiny larvae do.

Once the infested items have been identified, the next step is to clean, treat or discard them, along with their containers. Here are the recommended methods:

- Shake and brush the items, then hang them in the sun for several hours.

- Wash in hot water above 120° F for 30 minutes.

- Freeze below 18° F for several days.

- Dry clean.

- Vacuum (and throw out the vacuum bag right after).

The room where the infestation is located also needs to be well-cleaned, with special attention paid to hidden areas -- under furniture, around moldings and so on.

This advice seemed so sensible that I decided to pack up all my mothballs and follow it. I didn't bother trying to salvage anything -- just threw the hamper and all its contents out. Then I gave the room a very thorough, non-toxic cleaning.

To avoid reinfestation, my husband vacuumed all our rugs. Then we went through our woolen things, threw out the ones we hadn't worn in years and brought the rest to a dry cleaners. (Because dry-cleaning uses a toxic chemical called "perc," I avoid it as much as possible, but couldn't in this instance, as we weren't able to use the other cleaning methods.) The bill was huge, of course, but less than the amount we'd already lost in moth-eaten things. When the clothes came back, we packed them up for summer in sealed bags with cedar blocks.

Our moth population immediately declined. I've no idea where the moths went, as we didn't actually kill them, except for a few stragglers some days later. The superstitious part of me doesn't want to say it, but at this point, they seem to be all gone. Only time will tell if we successfully rid ourselves of their progeny, too.

—Sheryl Eisenberg


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Sheryl Eisenberg, a long-time advisor to NRDC, posts a new This Green Life every month. Sheryl makes her home in Tribeca (NYC), where—along with her children, Sophie and Gabby, and husband, Peter—she tries to put her environmental principles into practice. No fooling. Read more about Sheryl.



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ONLINE RESOURCES

UC/DAVIS INTEGRATED PEST MANAGEMENT
Clothes Moths

EPA AIR TOXICS WEBSITE
1,4-Dichlorobenzene

EPA AIR TOXICS WEBSITE
Naphthalene

ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH PERSPECTIVE
Mothballs' Link to Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma

UK NET GUIDE
How to Get Rid of Moths

BERKELEY PARENTS NETWORK
Advice about Moths



Not just wool. Moth larvae also feed on silk, down, felt and other animal products.



Clothes moth
Know your moths. If the moths are flying around your kitchen, they're probably a whole different can of worms (pun intended) -- the kind that likes grains and other foods. The one pictured above is a clothes moth.



Cleanliness is all. Moths are most drawn to soiled textiles, which is why you should thoroughly clean your clothes before putting them in storage. Moths also like pet hair, so if you have pets (we've got four), vacuum, vacuum, vacuum.



Cedar
Safer, but not sufficient. Cedar and some herbal preparations may act as moth repellants. One variety of cedar (Eastern Red Cedar) may also kill small larvae, though not grown moths. While cedar will not rid you of an infestation, it can help to protect clean, moth-free items in well-sealed containers, as long as you sand and/or treat the wood with cedar oil every year or two.



Mothballs and children don't mix. If you do use mothballs and have small children in the home, be sure to keep the containers out of reach. Children tend to have lower tolerances for toxins than adults because of their lower body weight and developing neurological and reproductive systems. They also engage in riskier behavior, like putting foreign substances in their mouths.


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Sheryl Eisenberg is a web developer and writer. With her firm, Mixit Productions (http://www.mixitproductions.com), she brought NRDC online in 1996, designed NRDC's first websites, and continues to develop special web features for NRDC. She created and, for several years, wrote the Union of Concerned Scientists' green living column, Greentips, and has designed and contributed content to many nonprofit sites.