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What is Naphthalene?

Man smoking a cigarette, which contains napththalene.
Colored moth balls containing naphtlanene.
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  • Written By: S. Mithra
  • Edited By: L. S. Wynn
  • Last Modified Date: 30 March 2014
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Naphthalene is a chemical used to make lubricant, insecticide, resin, solvents, and many other commercial and consumer products. This odorous, white solid is best known as mothballs, and it is sometimes called moth flakes, naphtha, nafta, or tar camphor. It is found in the ash of plant material, as well as a trace element in petroleum products like crude oil.

A few substances naturally contain naphthalene. For example, it is found in fossil fuels and in the ash of timer and tobacco. It can be isolated for use in manufacturing and consumer products. The strongly smelling chemical is traditionally used in flake or ball form and wrapped in wool blankets, coats, and sweaters to keep away munching moths.

Although naphthalene comes as a solid, it is easily converted to liquid and gas. As a particulate suspended in gas, it can combust, therefore it is used in explosives. The chemical also dissolves in alcoholic liquids like acetone. Often, it's used in tanning leather applications, insecticide, antiseptic, lubricant, dye, resin, solvents, and plastics.

Since this chemical is involved in stages of so many products, both workers and consumers may be exposed to it and its potential dangers. Employees learn how to take precautions that reduce their exposure to the liquid or gas. The general public must be careful when using mothballs or diaper pail deodorizers, since they cause serious health problems when used incorrectly.

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For instance, the naphthalene 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. Routine exposure can cause a condition called hemolytic anemia, where a person's red blood cells get damaged. Ingestion or skin exposure causes more extreme reactions in the liver and bladder, causing jaundice, lightheadedness, and eventually leading to coma. Cigarette smoke contains the chemical, which may cause cancer.

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Discuss this Article

julies
Post 16
I am not a smoker, but didn't know that cigarettes contain the same chemical as mothballs. I have never used mothballs when storing my clothing, but remember my grandma doing that. It seems like all of her closets smelled like mothballs. That is a smell that just doesn't seem to go away and stays with you for a long time.
LisaLou
Post 15
We raise beehives, and any time you store beehives somewhere that don't have any honeybees in them, you have to use mothballs or something that would be similar to naphthalene to keep the moths out of the beehives.

We have had to throw away several frames because the moths got into the beehives before we treated them and ruined them. It really doesn't take very long for a hive to sit empty for the moths to take over. Once they do, you really have a mess and it is just a whole lot easier to treat them right away instead of waiting.

If the hives are stored in an inside area, the strong odor of the mothballs is almost overwhelming. I can see why it keeps the moths away as the odor is so strong that I want to stay away as well. I guess I never realized how potentially harmful this chemical can be.

John57
Post 14

Not until I read this article did I finally realize why I had such a strong reaction when I first wore sweaters in the winter. My mom would store our off-season clothes like sweaters in mothballs. I don't know if she washed these before we wore them or not, but I always got sick when I started wearing them.

I would get a headache and feel slightly sick to my stomach. I just always thought I was coming down with something, but now I realize it must have been the odor of mothballs from the sweaters.

sunshined
Post 13

@SarahGen -- I wonder if cedar chips would work the same as a cedar chest at keeping the moths away. When I graduated from high school I was given a lovely cedar chest. I store items of clothing in here that I don't use all the time, but don't want to get ruined hanging in a closet somewhere.

The scent of cedar is so much more appealing than the smell of mothballs. I have always dreamed of having a cedar closet, but that has never happened yet.

I have never liked the smell of mothballs. Whenever I walk into a second hand store that sells clothing this is the first thing I smell. It is strong enough that it really bothers me and I rarely step foot in a store like this because of this strong smell.

donasmrs
Post 12

@anon275620-- It definitely is harmful. Headaches are a result of inhaling too much naphthalene. If you also get symptoms like nausea and vomiting, you might have naphthalene poisoning.

Can you wear a mask while you work?

SarahGen
Post 11

@fBoyle-- It hasn't been proven that naphthalene causes cancer in humans but there are studies which show that it does cause cancer in rodents. Infants and children are at much higher risk than adults.

You can use moth balls made with paradichlorobenzene instead of naphthalene. Or you can use cedar chips or horse chestnuts which are natural insect repellents.

fBoyle
Post 10

@anon4903-- I don't know for sure but I have been told to always wash clothes that were packed with moth balls before wearing them.

I think people used to be less informed about naphthalene in the past and used moth balls a lot. But now doctors are saying that using moth balls causes cancer. If you're smelling the naphthalene, it means the chemicals are in the air.

I just wish there was a safe alternative to moth balls because they work really well at keeping moths away.

anon275620
Post 9

I'm excavating on an old tannery and the ground is black. I've been told it's Naphthalene and I would have to be sat on for six months to do any harm but after only a few hours I've got a headache from the fumes. Is it harmful or not?

anon266997
Post 8

I need help. As you know, the diesel fuel is composed of about 75 percent saturated hydrocarbons (primarily paraffins including n, iso, and cycloparaffins), and 25% aromatic hydrocarbons (including naphthalenes and alkylbenzenes).

My 1uestion: I need to remove the naphthalenes and alkylbenzenes from diesel fuel and am looking for know how.

MomaGeek
Post 7

@horndor: I am looking for info about termites emitting napthalene gas. Do you have termites? I hope you find the cause of the problem in your basement. I would have liked to ask you more questions about your gas odors.

anon227050
Post 5

can naphthalene be used for head lice treatment? if yes are there any ill effects on the brain?

anon131280
Post 4

I got a couple of questions:

1. what is the physical state of pure napthalene at room temperature?

2. Is freezing napthalene a physical change or chemical change?

horndor
Post 3

We have a smell permeating from our basement that smells a lot like moth balls. We do not use moth balls so we are stumped as to where the smell is coming from. We had a dehumidifier running and thought maybe somehow that was the source so we shut it off. It has been off for two days, but there is still a smell. Any ideas?

anon40746
Post 2

can napthalene be used to kill the lice of the hair?

anon4903
Post 1

Question: Once moth balls are removed, is the smell left from the moth balls toxic if inhaled? Once moth balls are removed, does the naphthalene gas linger with the smell left in wood or on clothes; thus the "smell" is toxic?

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