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Mothballs and Their Health Effects

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4 min read


Mothballs are small chemical balls that protect clothes and other substances from moths. This article explains mothballs and their hazardous health effects.

Written by

Dr. Sameeha M S

Medically reviewed by

Dr. Achanta Krishna Swaroop

Published At November 7, 2022
Reviewed AtJanuary 17, 2024


Mothballs are used to prevent the growth of moths and fiber-eating pests in clothes. They are small pesticide balls made of toxic and harmful chemicals. Naphthalene or paradichlorobenzene is the most commonly used chemical for manufacturing mothballs. The chemicals in mothballs are converted to toxic vapor at room temperature and kill the moths and pests. Improper handling and accidental exposure to the chemicals present in mothballs will cause adverse health effects. This article explains mothballs and their hazardous health effects.

What Are Mothballs?

Mothballs contain toxic chemicals intended to kill and prevent the growth of moths in clothes and other substances. They are available as small round balls, cakes, or flakes. It contains majorly naphthalene or 1, 4 dichlorobenzene (paradichlorobenzene). These chemicals are converted to vapors at room temperature and prevent the growth of moth and moth larvae. The clothes placed with mothballs must be kept inside an airtight container to prevent surrounding air contamination. Mothballs will cause dangerous health conditions when pets, children, and wildlife accidentally consume them.

Do Mothballs Pose a Safety Risk?

Mothballs may be hazardous if not used properly. Mothballs usually contain chemicals like paradichlorobenzene or naphthalene. These chemicals release vapors to stop insects and pests. Though these mothballs are used for protecting clothes and other objects or items from moth damage, there are potential dangers with mothballs. Some of them include

  • Toxicity: Both paradichlorobenzene and naphthalene may be toxic if ingested, absorbed, or inhaled through the skin. High-concentrated vapors from mothballs inhaled cause health problems like dizziness, headache, nausea, and damage to vital organs like kidneys, liver, and nervous system.

  • Risk to Children and Pets: Mothballs cause a particular risk to small children and pets. Small children may accidentally get ingested from the mothballs. Even ingesting small amounts of chemicals from the mothballs can be harmful.

  • Environmental Impact: Vapors from the mothballs can also harm the environment. Improper disposal and increased usage can cause water and air pollution in the environment.

What Are the Health Effects of Mothballs?

Mothballs contain toxic chemicals like Naphthalene and Paradichlorobenzene (PDCB). These toxic chemicals in mothballs reach the human body due to chronic inhalation, accidental consumption, and skin contact. After entering the human body, it can cause various adverse health conditions affecting the brain, eyes, kidneys, lungs, and liver.

It includes :

  • Headache - Accidental exposure to chemicals in the mothballs can cause pain and associated discomfort inside the head.

  • Nausea - It occurs when someone accidentally consumes mothballs. The toxic chemicals reach the gastrointestinal system and result in uneasiness and an increased tendency to vomit.

  • Vomiting - After reaching the stomach, the toxic chemicals cause irritations, and as a result, the gastric contents are expelled through the mouth. It is a natural body reaction to toxic substances.

  • Abdominal Pain - It occurs as a result of the toxic effect of chemical substances present in mothballs. Irritation and discomfort to the mucosal and submucosal layers of the stomach will cause a sensation of pain.

  • Malaise - After accidental consumption of mothballs by kids and pets, there will be a feeling of discomfort, weakness, and illness due to the toxic chemical reactions occurring inside the body.

  • Lens Opacification - Several studies have shown that naphthalene present in mothballs induces lens opacification and cataracts. Toxic chemicals from naphthalene, like naphthalene dihydrodiol, reach the aqueous humor and lens. There, it is metabolized to naphthoquinone, which is highly toxic to the eyes and causes cataracts.

  • Retinal Hemorrhage - This occurs when the toxic chemicals present in mothballs reach the retinal blood vessels and cause abnormal bleeding resulting in loss of vision.

  • Hemolytic Anemia - Acute intravascular hemolysis occurs due to naphthalene ingestion. Accidental ingestion of naphthalene will cause severe hemolysis and hypotension.

  • Pulmonary Fibrosis - The toxic chemical vapors (naphthalene) released from the mothball reach the respiratory system due to inhalation. After reaching the respiratory system, they cause chronic epithelial injury and associated chronic obstructive lung diseases. Pulmonary fibrosis includes a group of lung diseases that impact alveoli and connective tissue in the respiratory system. Lung tissues will eventually become stiff and resist expansion during respiration. It will result in difficulty and shortness of breath.

  • DNA Damage - It occurs when the human body is exposed to naphthalene released from mothballs. Naphthalene will increase the incidence of DNA fragmentation and result in DNA damage.

  • Central Nervous System Damage - Toxic chemicals present in the mothball cause damage to the brain cells. Naphthalene will cause glutathione depletion (antioxidant) and inhibition of lipid peroxidation. It damages brain cells by inducing oxidative stress and the production of hydroxyl radicals and superoxide anions. These highly reactive oxygen molecules will cause brain cell damage.

  • Cancer - Toxic chemicals present in mothballs, like naphthalene and paradichlorobenzene, are associated with an increased risk of cancer. These chemicals will inhibit the enzymes that promote apoptosis(programmed cell death) and result in abnormal cellular proliferation and cancer. Studies show a positive association between the incidence of non-Hodgkin lymphoma (cancer of lymph tissues) and naphthalene exposure.

What Safety Precautions Can be Used While Using Mothballs?

  1. Mouth balls must be used for clothes placed in an airtight container. Cloth is placed in a plastic or garment airtight container and sealed. This will prevent the dilution of mothball vapors and increase its effectiveness.

  2. Mothballs must be handled using rubber or plastic gloves. Follow the instructions in the package, use the correct number of balls needed, and place them with the clothes in the container.

  3. Store the items in a safe place for as long as needed.

  4. Unpack the sealed container containing cloth and mothball in a properly ventilated area.

  5. Wash the clothes before wearing them to avoid a strong mothball smell (a combination of vinegar and water can be used).

  6. Clean the stored containers carefully, wearing gloves.

  7. Mothball packets must be discarded at the household hazardous waste disposal site.


Mothballs are small chemical pesticide balls used to kill fabric pests and moths. These chemicals contain toxic substances which can cause serious adverse effects once they reach the human body. Mothballs must be handled carefully, following safety precautions to avoid exposure and side effects.

Frequently Asked Questions


Is It Dangerous to Breathe Mothballs?

Mothballs contain chemicals that are toxic to humans. Inhaling the fumes exposes people to the chemicals in mothballs. Toxic chemicals in mothballs can enter the respiratory tract through inhalation and cause respiratory problems. In addition, these naphthalene vapors can be toxic to tissues and human cells/


Can Mothball Cause Toxic Effects on the Lungs?

Toxic chemicals found in mothballs include naphthalene and paradichlorobenzene (PDCB). By inhaling the fumes, people are exposed to the toxic chemicals in mothballs. In addition, the mothballs release gases into the air, leading to respiratory issues. In enclosed spaces, high concentrations of chemical fumes might build up and result in lung damage.


What Happens if Someone Smells Too Many Mothballs?

Some of the toxic chemicals in mothballs can cause health effects such as headaches, eye, and nose irritation, nausea, and coughing. However, naphthalene exposure can have more serious consequences, including hemolytic anemia, and naphthalene is also a possible carcinogen. Other health effects associated with the inhalation of naphthalene include skin irritation, confusion, abdominal cramps, and convulsions.


How Long Do Mothball Fumes Last in the Air?

Mothballs are small pesticide balls that control moths, silverfish, and other fiber pests in natural fiber clothing and materials. A mothball takes three to six months to dissipate entirely in the open air. However, it can take up to a year for a mothball placed underneath garments or in another enclosed space to evaporate entirely. After dispersing, the mothball fragrance lingers in the surroundings for months or years.


What to Do After Mothball Exposure?

Immediate medical treatment is needed after direct exposure to mothballs (eaten mothballs). It includes the following.
- Activated charcoal to prevent poison absorption in the digestive tract.
- Airway and breathing assistance, including oxygen.
- Intravenous fluids.
- Laxatives for quickly transporting the poison through the body and eliminating it.
- Medicines for the treatment of symptoms and reversing the toxic effects.


Are Mothballs Toxic to Pets?

A significant amount of insect repellant is present in mothballs. The most common cause of poisoning in pets is the ingestion of mothballs. Cats are more sensitive to mothballs' toxic effects than other pets. However, dogs are more likely to consume mothballs due to their curious nature. Mothball fumes can injure pets if they are exposed for a long time.


What Are the Natural Alternatives to Mothballs?

Natural alternatives to mothballs are the following.
- Cedar blocks.
- Lavender oil.
- Citronella oil.
- Spice pouches.
- Cloves, rosemary, and thyme.
- Camphor oil.
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Dr. Achanta Krishna Swaroop
Dr. Achanta Krishna Swaroop



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