The variety of substances misused by people at times seems staggering. It is especially alarming when teenagers come up with a different everyday substances to consume, smoke, or inhale for a high. When they cannot get access to alcohol or street drugs, kids often turn to household items. Using inhalants like aerosol cans, for instance, is nothing new. Popping up on the radar now, however, is abuse of mothballs. The smelly, moth-deterring balls that protect wool sweaters are giving some kids a high and sometimes leading to health consequences as well.
What are Mothballs?
The intended use of mothballs is to protect clothing and textiles from being damaged by moth larvae. Traditionally, mothballs were made with naphthalene. This small, organic compound has a distinctive smell that is noticeable even at low concentrations. It is found naturally in a few sources such as particular plants and animals, but it can also be derived in a laboratory. The fumes given off by the naphthalene in mothballs kills the larvae.
Modern mothballs use a different chemical, called para-dichlorobenzene (p-DCB) because naphthalene is flammable. This compound, like naphthalene, gives off a strong odor and can kill moth larvae. This chemical is also used as a disinfectant, often in bathroom garbage cans and in urinals cakes. Mothballs, whether they contain naphthalene or p-DCB, work by giving off fumes. In order to kill moth larvae, these fumes must build up within a closed container, such as an armoire or dresser drawer.
In general, those who abuse mothballs to get a high do so by inhaling the fumes, although eating them is also possible. The result is a high similar to the high that can be had from other types on inhalant drugs and comes with a feeling similar to being intoxicated by alcohol. The effects produced vary widely depending on the exact chemical inhaled and the amount used, but in addition to the high feeling, users may hallucinate, feel a distorted sense of time and space, or experience rapidly changing emotions. Unpleasant results include nausea, vomiting, slurred speech, headache, coordination loss, wheezing, and a rash.
The Dangers of Using Mothballs
There are serious health risks associated with inhaling or consuming mothballs. A skin rash is common with use of this substance, for instance, as is mental sluggishness and a lack of coordination. Additionally, the compounds p-DCB and naphthalene are carcinogenic and those who abuse mothballs risk increasing their odds of developing cancer. More immediately, using mothballs can cause a burning sensation in the eyes. With significant exposure, this could cause long-term damage to the eyes. Inhaling the fumes typically causes breathing difficulty and is especially dangerous for anyone who has asthma or another type of illness that interferes with breathing. Over the long term, using mothballs may even cause anemia, characterized by weakness and fatigue. Very large doses of mothballs or their fumes may even cause convulsions, seizures, and the onset of a coma.
Is it Really a Big Problem?
How many teenagers are really abusing mothballs is, unfortunately, not known. Teens do not readily admit to using household substances to get high, so many physicians believe that the phenomenon is underreported. A few years ago, a scare over the use of mothballs swept the media when two teens in France were discovered to be inhaling and consuming them. They were admitted to an emergency room and doctors struggled to figure out the cause of their symptoms which included a rash, unsteadiness, and mental sluggishness. When their stash was discovered, the truth came out and several news outlets reported that mothballs were the new high.
According to the physicians who treated the young women, only three other cases of abusing mothballs had been reported in the literature. However, they still pointed out that the phenomenon is likely significantly underreported. While the prevalence of mothball use is not well known, teens using other household chemicals as inhalants is documented and is a serious health problem.
What to do about it?
Fortunately, mothballs are not very common these days, but other inhalants are. It is important for parents to talk to their teens, and younger kids as well, about the risks of using inhalants. For many, the pressure from friends and other peers can be strong and it is easy to be convinced that the risk is minimal. When young people understand the true dangers, they will have a better reason to say no to peer pressure.