By NSW Health

Naphthalene, the active substance in moth balls, is used to deter moths and silverfish from eating fabrics. It is also commonly used in toilet deodorant cakes. While highly effective in preventing insects from destroying stored clothing and eliminating toilet odours, If breathed of consumed naphthalene can be dangerous to both pets and humans, especially infants. The following information from NSW Health is intended to guide consumers in the safe use of products containing naphthalene.

What is Naphthalene?

Some moth balls and toilet deodorant cakes contain a substance called naphthalene. Naphthalene is a solid, white material with a distinctive odour, and it is found naturally in fossil fuels like coal and oil.

How can I be exposed to Naphthalene?

Naphthalene exposure can occur if you breathe air that contains naphthalene, if you drink liquids containing naphthalene, or if products containing naphthalene are touched or accidentally eaten. Be aware that you can also breathe in naphthalene vapours from clothes that have been stored in moth balls.

What effect can naphthalene have on health?

Exposure to very large amounts of naphthalene can cause damage to blood cells, leading to a condition called haemolytic anaemia. This condition has been seen in people, particularly children, after they have eaten moth balls containing naphthalene. Some of the symptoms that may occur after exposure to large quantities of naphthalene are fatigue, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhoea. The skin may become pale or yellow-coloured.

Newborn babies are particularly at risk of damaging their blood cells if they are exposed to naphthalene. The damage to their blood cells releases a product (bilirubin) that makes the baby go yellow and in very severe cases can cause brain damage. Some people are born with a genetic blood condition (G6PD deficiency) which makes them more susceptible to the effects of naphthalene, so symptoms can be seen after exposure to even only small amounts of naphthalene.

If any of these symptoms occur after exposure to naphthalene, you should immediately consult a doctor. There is no direct evidence that naphthalene can cause cancer in people.

How should naphthalene be used safely?

Moth balls containing naphthalene are generally safe for use around adults and older children, if used correctly and in the right quantity. Australian guidelines recommend that the use of naphthalene is restricted around children under three years of age. This means that children’s blankets and clothes should not be stored with mothballs containing naphthalene, and moth balls should not be used in young children’s rooms or in areas where young children may be present or have access to.

If children’s blankets and clothing have inadvertently been stored with naphthalene moth balls, they should be aired outdoors to remove any odour and washed before they are used. It can be very dangerous if moth balls are eaten, so it is especially important that mothballs are stored
well out of the reach of small children and pets. Additionally, if you or one of your direct family members has been diagnosed with a genetic disorder of
the blood, products containing naphthalene should be avoided.

Further advice concerning the health risks of naphthalene can be obtained 24 hours a day, 7 days a week Australia wide from the NSW Poisons Information Centre on 13 11 26, or from local Public Health Units.

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Metropolitan Areas Location Number Rural Areas Location Number
Northern Sydney/ Central Coast Hornsby 02 9477 9400 Greater Southern Goulburn 02 4824 1837
Gosford 02 4349 4845 Albury 02 6080 8900
South Eastern Sydney/ Illawarra Randwick 02 9382 8333 Greater Western Broken Hill 08 8080 1499
Wollongong 02 4221 6700 Dubbo 02 6841 5569
Sydney South West Camperdown 02 9515 9420 Bathurst 02 6339 5601
Sydney West Penrith 02 4734 2022 Hunter/ New England Newcastle 02 4924 6477
Parramatta 02 9840 3603 Tamworth 02 6767 8630
Justice Health Service Matraville 02 9311 2707 North Coast Port Macquarie 02 6588 2750
Lismore 02 6620 7500

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