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A packet of mothball

Mothballs are small balls of chemical pesticide and deodorant, sometimes used when storing clothing and other materials susceptible to damage from mold or moth larvae (especially clothes moths like Tineola bisselliella).


Older mothballs consisted primarily of naphthalene, but due to naphthalene's flammability, many modern mothball formulations instead use 1,4-dichlorobenzene. The latter formulation may be somewhat less flammable, although both chemicals have the same NFPA 704 rating for flammability. The latter chemical is also variously labeled as para-dichlorobenzene, p-dichlorobenzene, pDCB, or PDB, making it harder to identify unless all these acronyms are known to a potential purchaser. Both of these formulations have the strong, pungent, sickly-sweet odor often associated with mothballs. Both naphthalene and 1,4-dichlorobenzene undergo sublimation, meaning that they transition from a solid state directly into a gas; this gas is toxic to moths and moth larvae.[1]

Due to the health risks of 1,4-dichlorobenzene, and flammability of naphthalene, other substances like camphor are sometimes used.


Mothballs are stored in air-tight bags made of a non-reactive plastic such as polyethylene or polypropylene (other plastics may be degraded or softened). The clothing to be protected should be sealed within airtight containers; otherwise the vapors will tend to escape into the surrounding environment.[1] Manufacturer's instructions regularly warn against using mothballs for any purpose other than those specified by the packaging, as such uses are not only harmful and noxious, they are also frequently considered illegal.[2][1]

Although occasionally used as snake repellent, mothball use as a rodent, squirrel, or bat repellent is illegal in many areas, and tends to cause more annoyance and hazard to humans than to the target pest.[3][1] However, mothballs continue to be advertised as squirrel repellent and are an ingredient in some commercial vermin and snake repellent products.

Health risks[edit]

The US Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) has determined that 1,4-dichlorobenzene "may reasonably be anticipated to be a carcinogen". This has been indicated by animal studies, although a full-scale human study has not been done.[4] The National Toxicology Program (NTP), the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and the state of California consider 1,4-dichlorobenzene a carcinogen.[5]

Exposure to naphthalene mothballs can cause acute hemolysis (anemia) in people with glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase deficiency.[6] IARC classifies naphthalene as possibly carcinogenic to humans and other animals (see also Group 2B).[7] IARC points out that acute exposure causes cataracts in humans, rats, rabbits, and mice. Chronic exposure to naphthalene vapors is reported to also cause cataracts and retinal hemorrhage.[8] Under California's Proposition 65, naphthalene is listed as "known to the State to cause cancer".[9]

Research at the University of Colorado at Boulder revealed a probable mechanism for the carcinogenic effects of mothballs and some types of air fresheners.[10][11]

In addition to their cancer risks, mothballs are known to cause liver and kidney damage.[1]

1,4-Dichlorobenzene is a neurotoxin. It has been abused as an inhalant, causing a variety of neurotoxic effects.[12][13]

Mothballs containing naphthalene have been banned within the EU since 2008.[14][15]


As discussed in more detail at Tineola bisselliella, alternatives to mothballs to control clothes moths include dry cleaning, freezing, thorough vacuuming, and washing in hot water.[16] Camphor is also used as a moth repellent, particularly in China.[17] Unlike naphthalene and dichlorobenzene, camphor has medicinal applications and is not regarded as a carcinogen, though it is toxic in large doses. Red cedar wood and oil is also used as an alternative moth repellent.[18]

Pheromone traps are also an effective diagnostic tool and can sometimes be an effective control tool to protect valuable clothing.

In popular culture[edit]

As a verb, "mothball" has a metaphorical usage, meaning "to stop work on an idea, plan, or job, but leaving it in such a way that work can continue in the future".[19] "Mothballed" is a common adjective to describe ships or aircraft which are stored for long periods, but not sent for scrapping.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e "What You Should Know About Mothballs: Protecting Your Children and Educating Childcare Providers" (PDF). Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals. Archived (PDF) from the original on June 11, 2021. Retrieved April 22, 2021.
  2. ^ Uncommon Uses for Common Household Products. Frank W. Cawood and Associates. 2000. p. 126. ISBN 978-1-890957-39-1. Archived from the original on August 6, 2020. Retrieved November 3, 2016.
  3. ^ "Problem Wildlife in the Garden and Yard". NPIC. National Pesticide Information Center. Archived from the original on October 23, 2020. Retrieved February 21, 2016.
  4. ^ "ToxFAQs™ for Dichlorobenzenes". Toxic Substances Portal. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Archived from the original on November 26, 2020. Retrieved May 24, 2013.
  5. ^ "p-dichlorobenzene (1,4-dichlorobenzene)" (PDF). Material Safety Data Sheet. Archived from the original (PDF) on May 22, 2013. Retrieved May 24, 2013.
  6. ^ Santucci, K; Shah, B. (January 2000). "Association of naphthalene with acute hemolytic anemia". Academic Emergency Medicine. 7(1):42-7.
  7. ^ "Some Traditional Herbal Medicines, Some Mycotoxins, Naphthalene and Styrene". IARC Monographs on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risks to Humans. 82: 367. 2002. Archived from the original on March 25, 2016. Retrieved December 25, 2008.
  8. ^ "Naphthalene". Air Toxics Web Site. US Environmental Protection Agency. Archived from the original on May 10, 2015. Retrieved May 24, 2013.
  9. ^ Proposition 65 Archived July 29, 2019, at the Wayback Machine, Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment
  10. ^ "Scientists May Have Solved Mystery Of Carcinogenic Mothballs" Archived October 10, 2008, at the Wayback Machine. June 20, 2006.
  11. ^ "Mothballs, air fresheners and cancer". Environmental Health Association of Nova Scotia. Archived from the original on February 22, 2020. Retrieved May 24, 2013.
  12. ^ "Mothball sniffing warning issued" Archived November 27, 2020, at the Wayback Machine. BBC News. July 27, 2006.
  13. ^ "Twin Girls with Neurocutaneous Symptoms Caused by Mothball Intoxication" Archived September 21, 2013, at the Wayback Machine. The New England Journal of Medicine. July 27, 2006.
  14. ^ Gray, Kerrina (November 17, 2013). "Council warned against use of poisonous moth balls". Your Local Guardian. Newsquest (London) Ltd. Archived from the original on December 2, 2013. Retrieved November 23, 2012.
  15. ^ Alderson, Andrew (November 15, 2008). "Holy straight bananas – now the Eurocrats are banning moth balls". The Telegraph. Archived from the original on January 3, 2014. Retrieved November 23, 2013.
  16. ^ Eisenberg, Sheryl. "Mothballed". This Green Life. Natural Resources Defense Council. Archived from the original on May 22, 2013. Retrieved May 24, 2013.
  17. ^ 国务院经贸办、卫生部关于停止生产和销售萘丸提倡使用樟脑制品的通知(国经贸调(1993)64号)
  18. ^ Back, E.A.; Rabak, F. (1923). Red Cedar Chests as Protectors Against Moth Damage. Bulletin of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. U.S. Department of Agriculture. Archived from the original on March 11, 2022. Retrieved December 28, 2020.
  19. ^ "Mothball". Cambridge Dictionary. Archived from the original on September 2, 2019. Retrieved September 2, 2019.

External links[edit]

The dictionary definition of mothball at Wiktionary