Sunday, May 5, 1991 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Household Environmentalist

Moth Deterrents Can Hurt You, Too

Spring is here, and it's time to put away your woollies. The very '50s way to do this is to stack them in a closet and turn the closet into a toxic moth munitions depot - a sprinkling of camphor, a few naphthalene balls and perhaps a cake or two of paradichlorobenzene.

Vapors from these chemicals, in high enough concentrations, will kill any clothes moth that has ever thought of munching on your sweaters. In high enough concentrations, they may kill you, too.

"Moth balls" made from these chemicals are acutely toxic. That is, if you eat them, you will get very sick, and you may die. More to the point, breathing their fumes over long periods of time - and if the stuff is killing your moths, your household is breathing their fumes - is not so great either.

Here is what the Bio-Integral Resource Center (BIRC), publisher of Common Sense Pest Control, says about moth-control chemicals:

Paradichlorobenzene (PDB) contains benzene, known to be a potent human carcinogen. People who are chronically exposed to its vapors store relatively large amounts of it in their body fat. Not my body fat, thank you very much.

Naphthalene produces a "spectacular blood-destroying action on sensitive individuals," especially those of dark-skinned races. Whole body reactions have occurred in children dressed in clothes stored in naphthalene. And cases of corneal ulcers and cataracts have been documented in individuals exposed to the stuff.

Camphor, most toxic of the three if eaten, is less toxic over the long term. BIRC notes, however, that camphor is a central nervous stimulant capable of causing neurological disorders.

So, supposing you see the light, and toss your mothballs (in accordance with local household hazardous-waste ordinances, of course). Can you have a nontoxic household and still dress sharp?

The nontoxic solution to clothes moths lies in knowing a little more about the creatures. First, it is not the adults that chew on fabric, but their tiny, pallid larvae. They are fragile, they hate sunlight, and they can't tolerate sudden changes in temperature. Most important, the larvae cannot live by wool alone. The woolens must be soiled with food, beverage, sweat or urine stains - contaminants that provide protein, salts and vitamin B. So:

-- Don't accumulate woolens you never wear. These will just serve as moth feedstock.

-- Wash your woolens before putting them away. Both handwashing and dry cleaning kill moths, eggs and larvae. Any newcomers will starve on clean clothes.

-- Store clean clothes in airtight containers such as cedar chests, or seal them in plastic. Contrary to conventional wisdom, vapors from the cedar are not enough to protect your clothes. The tight seal on the chest does it.

-- If sealing away your clothes doesn't appeal, drag them out of your drawers and give them a hard shake every so often. Or sun them on a clothesline and give them a whack or two. Moths will drop off clothing when they can't find shelter from the light.

-- Does your attic get very hot in the summer? Temperatures over 100 degrees will kill moths in all stages.

-- Wrap a sweater in a plastic bag and put it in the freezer for two days. When you return the garment to your warm shelves, all the moths in it will die.

Here are some moth-repellent recipes that BIRC says don't work: cayenne pepper, allspice, hellebore, cedar blocks and leaves, eucalyptus and almost anything else that sounds easy and nontoxic.

There is a lot more to know about clothes moths. If you are interested, for instance, in not letting your sofa be a moth sanctuary, send $5 to BIRC, at P.O. Box 7414, Berkeley, CA 94707, and ask for their pamphlet "Fabric and Paper Pests."

Susan McGrath's column runs weekly in the Home/Real Estate section of The Times. Do you have a question about decisions you can make in your everyday life to help keep your household healthy? Have you found solutions? Send questions and comments to The Household Environmentalist, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111.

Copyright (c) 1991 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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