Naphthalene is a carbon-based chemical that is most commonly used to make mothballs. It has the chemical formula C10H8, and is known within the scientific community as a polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon. This chemical is found in nature but scientists can also synthetically create it in a lab. In addition to mothballs, it is used to make insecticide, many resins and solvents, and a range of lubricants and household products. Many cigarettes contain it, too. People who are regularly exposed to the chemical often experience negative health consequences. It’s usually considered safe for use in small amounts, but when ingested or constantly inhaled it can lead to nausea, headaches, and organ damage.
In most cases the compound starts out as a white solid with a very distinctive smell. It is sometimes also marketed as naphtha, nafta, tar camphor, or moth flakes, depending on the purpose for which it’s being sold. The original sourcing for this compound comes from nature. A few substances naturally contain naphthalene; it is found in trace elements in many fossil fuels as well as in the ash of timer and tobacco. Scientists frequently isolate it through a straining and filtration process, and it is sometimes also created synthetically. Man-made copies usually have the same chemical attributes but are often easier and faster to isolate.
Use as a Moth Repellant
This product is most commonly used as a moth repellant. Moths are small winged insects that live in most parts of the world and typically eat wool and certain other animal-based products. They can be difficult to deter since they are able to squeeze through small spaces and eat through a variety of materials. They tend to have a very particular sense of smell, however, and they won’t usually come near scents they find offensive. Naphthalene-containing products are typically some of the most effective.
People often pack sweaters away with mothballs and may scatter chemically laced chips or flakes in closets containing wool suits, blankets, and other goods. Some manufacturers also weave flakes into their products or coat certain fibers in liquid versions of the chemicals to provide a sort of constant protection, though this is more common for wool that has a utilitarian purpose than for wool that is worn directly on the skin.
Although naphthalene is typically first extracted as a solid, it is easily converted to liquid and gas. As a particulate suspended in gas it can combust relatively easily, and it’s often used in explosives as a result. The chemical also dissolves in alcoholic liquids such as acetone. It’s commonly added to leather tanning products, insecticides, and a range of industrial antiseptics, lubricants, dyes, resins, and solvents. Many plastics also have it as an ingredient.
Risks and Precautions
Since this chemical is involved at least to some degree in the manufacture of so many different products, both workers and consumers may be exposed to it and its potential dangers. Employees in factories and manufacturing plants typically learn how to take precautions that can reduce their exposure to the liquid or gas. The general public must also be careful when using mothballs even in the course of ordinary clothing storage since they can cause serious health problems when used incorrectly. Children are often more at risk than adults, too.
For instance, fumes may overwhelm a child wearing a sweater recently removed from a chest full of mothballs. Inhaling the chemical can lead to nausea, vomiting, fatigue, headache, fever, confusion, and fainting. As a result, it’s usually a good idea to give clothing time to air out before wearing it, or get garments professionally cleaned if possible.
Routine exposure can cause a condition called hemolytic anemia, in which a person's red blood cells become damaged and start failing to properly oxygenate the body. Ingestion or prolonged skin exposure has been known to cause more extreme reactions in the liver and bladder, causing jaundice, lightheadedness, and possibly even leading to coma. Cigarette smoke contains the chemical, too, which can lead to respiratory problems over the long-term. Manufacturers usually recommend keeping mothballs and related products well out of the reach of children, and encourage people who work with the chemical to wear a protective mask and take breaks for fresh air as needed.