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Mothballs Are Unsafe for Keepsakes

Those toxic fumes are harmful to children

That darling baby blanket you have wrapped in mothballs to save for your future grand (or even great-grand) kids? Bad idea. Really bad idea.

Mothballs may look all cute and harmless — just like white, smelly marbles — but they're really little chunks of dangerous pesticide. Storing treasured baby clothes in mothballs can be lethal, say leading pediatricians from Australia and New Zealand. The doctors say the fumes could lead to severe brain damage in babies and even death from the insecticide naphthalene used in mothballs.

A letter last week in the Medical Journal of Australia signed by four directors of neonatal units in Australia and New Zealand calls for a ban on naphthalene, the chemical that gives mothballs their distinctive odor. Although Aussie package labels warn against wrapping young children in blankets stored in mothballs, the Down Under doctors say these have been inadequate in protecting children in their country.

At least one infant death in the past three years and more than 100 reports to Australian poison control centers of children affected by mothball fumes were cited by the group. Inhaling mothball fumes can severely damage red blood cells.

The European Union, in 2008, banned products such as mothballs made with naphthalene. Five years earlier, the European Chemicals Bureau linked naphthalene with deaths in babies and other health risks.

A safer way to keep the bugs away from heirloom clothes and blankets would be to use camphor, lavender or sandalwood.

Many parents (and grandparents) don't realize the harm that mothballs can pose to children who inhale the harmful fumes, says Dr. William Tarnow-Mordi, M.D., of the WINNER Centre for Newborn Research at the University of Sydney.

"The safest course is prevention, which would have to be a total ban of naphthalene in mothballs,'' he told the Sydney Morning Herald.

Although package labels in both the United States and Australia caution that mothballs should be used only in airtight containers, Tarnow-Mordi says the mandatory warnings are insufficient, and some American researchers agree that mothball labeling is dangerously vague.

The labels don't specify how long the clothing or blankets need to air out — or if they should be laundered — in order to get rid of the fumes. The danger is that "consumers might take mothballed clothing and wear it immediately" or even "air it indoors, further contributing to human exposure" to the toxic fumes, said Linda M. Hall of the California Environmental Protection Agency at last year's American Chemical Society annual meeting.

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The pesticide in mothballs slowly vaporizes into lethal gas in order to kill bugs, according to the National Pesticide Information Center at Oregon State University. In the United States, mothballs are made with either naphthalene or another insecticide, paradichlorobenzene. "When you smell mothballs, you are inhaling the insecticide," the center's website warns.

The center also warns against using mothballs in gardens or other outdoor locations to control insects, snakes or other pests. Using mothballs outside is not only illegal, it can harm children, pets and wildlife, as well as contaminate the soil, plants and water.

Candy Sagon writes about health and nutrition for AARP Bulletin.

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