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Mothball odor removal & mothball chemical & gas hazards: here we describe the detection of and risks of exposure to mothball chemicals & odors when moth repellent products are applied indoors in buildings.
We describe how to get rid of mothball odors in buildings, building furnishings, clothing, or vehicles.
We note the possible health hazards from exposure to mothball odors (and gases) as well as the child hazard of eating mothballs or moth repellent products. We discuss methods to reduce mothball chemical & gas exposure.
We cite authoritative sources of information about safe and proper use of moth repellents and about mothball and moth repellent chemistry, child hazards, indoor air quality and health concerns, and proper application and use of these products.
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Mothball Odors & Chemicals, Hazards, Exposure, Health Effects, Odor Removal
Mothballs are fumigants containing naphthalene
or paradichlorobenzene and act a pest repellent and possibly act also as a pesticide used to protect clothing and other soft goods from attack by moths.
The moth at left and all other moths shown in this article except the one at the top of this page are not clothes-attacking insects.
[Click to enlarge any image]
Some people have also tried using moth repellent products like mothballs to keep rodents and other pests out of certain building areas or out of stored vehicles.
Placing an open box of mothballs under the hood of my MG midget while it was stored kept squirrels and mice from nesting in the engine compartment, and leaving a box of mothballs inside the car was an attempt to keep the same pests out of the vehicle interior too.
Watch out: we do not recommend placing mothballs, moth cakes, or moth repellent flakes inside building rooms, crawl spaces, attics, wall or ceiling cavities, trash cans, nor inside vehicles, both because the fumes and chemicals can be hazardous to humans and because the odor can later be difficult to get rid-of. We explain this problem in detail below.
Watch out: because mothballs are a registered pesticide and because of the toxicity of their chemicals, it is illegal to use mothballs or moth crystals, cakes, etc. as a repellent for animal pests (birds, cats, deer, dogs, moles, pigeons, mice, skunks, raccoons,snakes, squirrels, etc.) 
As stated in Best Practices Guide to Residential Construction and detailed
at PESTICIDE EXPOSURE HAZARDS
Pesticides are a special class of organic chemicals designed
to kill living organisms.
In addition to the compounds used
in the home and garden, the class of chemicals regulated as
pesticides also include kitchen and bath disinfectants, flea
and tick products, and swimming pool chemicals.
cases, both the active ingredient targeted to one or more
pests and the “inert” carriers are organic chemicals that are
toxic to humans.
Every registered pesticide has a “signal” word on the
label, ranking the level of toxicity to humans, as follows:
- Danger—Poison: highly poisonous
- Danger: poisonous or corrosive
- Warning: moderately hazardous
- Caution: least hazardous
Page top image of mothballs courtesy of Wikipedia creative commons. Clothes moth image shown at above left is from Stone & Stock, PNW who provide an excellent guide to moth control. 
Health Effects of Exposure to (or ingestion of) Mothballs, Moth cakes, Moth Repellent Crystals
Mothballs contain either of the chemicals
paradichlorobenzene or naphthalene. Paradichlorobenzene
is classified as a possible human carcinogen by
the EPA, and its vapors can irritate skin, eyes, and the
Large doses can damage the liver. Mothballs are not intended to be placed in open spaces such as rooms, closets, or vehicles. Rather they should be used in an airtight space such as a clothes storage bag. 
Mothballs are fumigants that will dissolve or sublime at lower temperatures; mothballs thus work by a process of sublimation - the solid ball of chemicals converts directly to a gas that enters the air nearby.  But believe it or not mothballs or moth crystals may also be a child hazard if eaten - as has happened. 
Symptoms of exposure to
naphthalene include headache, nausea,
dizziness, and difficulty breathing.
Paradichlorobenzene is also a potential
hazard, although typically less so
compared to naphthalene. ... Eating just one mothball containing
naphthalene can damage a young child’s
red blood cells.... 
Exposure to naphthalene promotes hemolytic anemia,
associated with fatigue in mild cases and acute kidney
failure in severe cases. Poisonings of infants have
been reported after dressing the children in clothing
stored in naphthalene mothballs.
How to Reduce Indoor Exposure to Mothball Odors, Chemicals, Gases
- Avoid unnecessary use of mothballs & moth repellents: When possible, the best approach
is to find non chemical approaches to pests, including moths. That includes
- Don't use moth repellents if you don't have a moth problem in the first place. Moth larvae are shiny light colored wormlike organisms about 1/2-inch in length. Adult clothing-eating moths are white
(Image at left, PNW) 
Don't blame the innocent. None of the other moth or insect pictures shown in this article are clothing-eating insects.
To check for a moth infestation in your home, and keeping in mind that most moths are not the species that attack fabrics, you can try a pheromone trap to monitor for moth activity. The insects shown in our photo (left) attack our fig plant but not our clothing.
- Avoid importing moths, moth pupae or moth larvae (it's the larvae that eat animal fibers and fabrics) by cleaning used or old clothing that is "new" to your home before storing those materials away
- When storing clothing or other soft goods, especially woolens or other animal fiber materials, use clothing storage containers that are dry and airtight, first to keep moths out, and second, especially if moth repellent products are to be placed therein, to prevent mothball odors from invading other building areas or materials.
- Do not simply place moth repellent products in open boxes in areas such as rooms, closets, garages, or vehicles in an attempt to keep them moth (or mouse, or squirrel) free.
- Cedar closets? cedar fumes are toxic to moths only at high concentrations. Don't trust a cedar closet alone to prevent moth damage, although indeed cedar wood and cedar oils do avoid the mothball hazard and odor issue.
- Dried lavender and cedar fiber balls as moth repellents are not supported by good evidence. [2-Farr]
- Wash or dry clean clothing before putting it into storage; clean clothes are less attractive to moths according to some experts. Moth eggs, moth larvae as well as adult moths can all be killed by a hot water wash cycle. Moth eggs, pupae, or even adults may already be present in clothing, including cotton even though which moths are not directly attracted to that material. Dry-clean wool or other animal fiber materials (to which moths are attracted) for the same reason. 
- Read the mothball package label and closely follow instructions. If you are going to use a moth repellent product like mothballs, read and follow the directions on the product label. keep these products away from children who may be especially vulnerable not only to vapors from mothballs but as something sometimes eaten.
- Dispose of unwanted mothballs safely. Most of these
chemicals contain VOCs that will vaporize and get
into the household air. If you cannot dispose of partially
used containers, store outside the living space.
- Minimize exposure to moth repellant products. When used,
place mothballs, moth repellent cakes or moth crystals in a well-sealed trunk or other container that
can be stored in ventilated areas outside of the main
living space, such as attics or attached garages.
- Minimize exposure to some air fresheners: Paradichlorobenzene is also the active ingredient in
many air fresheners and should be avoided.
Reader Question: How can we get rid of an annoying mothball odor in our Condo?
We moved into a condo, which is a concrete block structure 3 months ago. Shortly after the move we began to smell moth balls.
After following the smell we were able to find out that the unit above us displaced several moth balls throughout there unit, tightly sealed the unit up without air conditioning on(we live in Florida) and left for the summer.
As the smell increased in our unit we begged parties involved to rid the unit of the moth balls and air it out.
Finally this was done, however even though the smell appears to be gone sometimes, other times we can still smell a bad odor, sometimes now the odor is less mothball smell and just simply a bad odor.
We have tried everything and are desperate to solve the problem. Is it possible to get rid of this toxic odor?
Any help would be greatly appreciated. - B.P. 9/22/2012
Reply: How to get rid of mothball odors in buildings, contents, clothing, furnishings
Indeed the odor from mothballs is a VOC-like substance (paradichlorobenzene or naphthalene) that quite penetrates many materials including even drywall, furnishings, carpeting, and it can take quite a while for it to diminish. And most people can smell mothballs - the characteristic odor of those chemica
ls can generally be detected in air at a concentration of just a few parts per billion, so getting rid of mothball odors is going to take some thorough airing out and cleaning.
- Airing out the original building area helps, this means opening windows and perhaps even using fans to move a good volume of fresh air through the building area - weather permitting. This is the best and principal means of reducing indoor mothball odors in building spaces themselves, and it will help reduce odors from furnishings and carpets and draperies too.
- Find & address the principal odor source: in general, odor removal of any sort in buildings is most effective if we can identify the exact odor source and remove or clean or seal that source. - what materials absorbed the gases, airborne compounds or VOCs from the mothballs - perhaps using
our SMELL PATCH TEST to FIND ODOR SOURCE - and then try sealing those surfaces if the smelly materials are not something that can be disposed-of. 
- Turning up the heat in the space where mothball odors persist can help drive volatiles back into building air where in combination with fresh air venting you will reduce mothball odors. For soft goods such as upholstered couches you may speed up the mothball odor removal by using a hair dryer (on low or medium temperature) to heat the upholstered surfaces.
- For soft goods such as clothing that has absorbed mothball odors, having the clothes dry-cleaned or laundered, or sometimes simply running washable clothing through the clothes dryer on medium heat will suffice to get rid of the mothball odors.
If that doesn't solve the problem and you need to go further you'd need to track down the principal sources of the odor
- Watch out: for mothball odor solutions that are ineffective, are products sold by someone with a conflict of interest, or may in fact make matters worse:
- Ozone generators for mothball odors???? Do not try using ozone or an indoor ozone generator to get rid of mothball odors. Improperly used you will find you've made a worse problem than before.
See OZONE MOLD / ODOR TREATMENT WARNINGS for details and for links to articles that describe how over-treatment by ozone can generate new horrible, costly-to-remove odors in buildings.
- Activated charcoal to "remove" mothball odors ??? In our OPINION the recommendation by some sources to place activated charcoal in the space where the mothball odors are strong is not likely to be useful; air circulation and fresh air are more effective than relying on a passive absorption system that never addresses the source of odors.
- Air purifiers to remove mothball smells????? In our OPINION, a portable indoor "air purifier" is unlikely to move enough air through a charcoal filter to be effective except in the case perhaps of a very small enclosed space.
Unfortunately some key studies we have reviewed tested a portable air "purifier" by placing it into an enclosed chamber with a limited amount of a specific pollutant - not a realistic nor real-world situation.
See AIR CLEANER PURIFIER TYPES.
Continue reading at ODORS GASES SMELLS, DIAGNOSIS & CURE or select a topic from the More Reading links shown below.
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MOTHS, MOTHBALL ODORS at InspectApedia.com - online encyclopedia of building & environmental inspection, testing, diagnosis, repair, & problem prevention advice.
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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
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Question: trouble getting rid of mothball odors in the building
(June 9, 2014) Vicki Livingstone said:
I put my woolens in a bag with mothballs and it permeated my bedroom. I have removed the bags but the room still smells. I have all the windows and doors open to circulate the air. Is it now safe to sleep in the room as long as I keep the windows and doors open to the outside?
(June 29, 2014) Ocean said:
I had a few mothballs in both our tiny bedrooms for only a few hours before we both started choking. Got them out and now the place is permeated bad. We are both in the living room now as we can't go in there. HELP! What is the best cleaning solution to use to clean the walls and closets.
I already purchased activated charcoal and Smeleeze but have not received them yet and now I read here that they are no good! Someone please reply. We are getting headaches, sore throat, and tingling in body.
Reply: activated charcoal or similar odor remedies won't remove an odor at its source
As the odor you cite is in a gaseous form I'm not sure that surface cleaning will be as helpful - unless you can identify and correct by removing or sealing actual materials that have become permeated with the mothball odor - as opening windows and doors and getting fresh air into the bedrooms where you have the odor complaints.
Activated charcoal won't hurt but just consider that you can't vacuum up dust bunnies in the living room by standing in the kitchen waving a vacuum cleaner wand in the air; in other words one needs to find and remove the odor source.
Just exposing a few ordinary mothballs indoors for a few hours sounds like an unlikely cause of severe persistent odors indoors. I'd also check for some other problem.
Question: difficulty removing mothball or napthalene odors
21 January 2015 Richard T. said:
We stored wool and cotton-polyester blend clothing in sealed LDPE low density polyethylene "rubber maid" containers with several naphthalene mothballs between each layer of clothes. After being stored for about one year, we opened the containers to discover a very bad chemical smell. It seems that the naphthalene reacted with the plastic and/or the polyester to create a very bad chemical smell. Since many of the items were quite valuable we attempted to save them. We contacted the mothball manufacturer for advice, their cleaning remedy was not successful with the polyester blends. We were successful with the wool and pure cotton items.
The big problem now is the order [sic] is present in the whole house. It seems to be attracted to other polyester/ plastic materials in the home such as the carpet, drapes, furniture cushions, polyester blend clothing, and dust that was in the heat vents. Unfortunately we had several of the contaminated clothing items and containers open and exposed inside the home for a several days while waiting for the mothball manufacturers advice.
It now has been several months without a successful solution. We have removed furniture, carpet, clothing, aired out the house daily, tried air purification, washed floors....etc. and the smell keeps returning. Since the smell migrates it is difficult to pin point what is next to be discarded or cleaned. I question if anyone else has had a problem like this and have the found a solution.
My advice is to never use naphthalene products in your living space.
Based on field experience and reader reports I agree that it can be quite difficult to completely remove napthalene odors from some fabrics or other materials in buildings or in clothing. At some point the cost of cleaning attempts may exceed the value of some clothing items.
For indoor building surfaces you might want to try the low-cost and easy SMELL PATCH TEST to FIND ODOR SOURCE we have documented in order to pinpoint the primary odor reservoirs.
Once those are identified you can decide to remove materials or to try applying a sealant paint such as the odor-suppressing paints used in building restoration following a fire.
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