How familiar are you with naphthalene?
If you have ever used mothballs for storing clothing, you are pretty familiar with a compound known as naphthalene. If you are asking questions like “how would I know if I’ve used mothballs?” or “remind me, what do mothballs look like?” then you’ve never spent any significant time around them. If you had, you would vividly remember the smell that hits you like a brick and brings you to your knees.
I remember helping my grandparents clean out their attic one summer and, being proactive and very organized (almost to the point of being compulsive), I started sorting their attic things into piles that I’d cleverly labeled “for grandkids,” “for donation” and “for recycling.” I pulled the packing tape off a box that contained clothing, and was suddenly engulfed with the strongest, sour-smelling odor I’d ever come across. Then came the scratchy throat and the watery eyes. As I wiped at the tears streaming down my cheeks, I remember my grandmother looking delighted, saying “oh good! The mothballs are still working!”
When you think about it, mothballs are really quite a clever solution to those pesky moths that eat holes in your clothing. You toss a few pellets into a storage container with some clothing that you’d like to store and protect, and you put your container in the bottom of your closet – or in your attic or basement. Over time, the pellets sublime and the vapors kill off any moths that are hanging around.
In essence, you are storing your clothing with a slow-release, pesticide vapor generator. While the odor is a bit tough to handle, if you open your storage containers quickly and toss all your clothing in the washing machine, you will have fresh, damage-free clothing in no time. The downside to mothballs is their potential toxicity. Most mothballs are produced as small pellets which, to a child or an animal, could be mistaken for candy or something else edible. The other health risk comes from the vapors themselves. Many people forget to use airtight storage containers, which allows the pesticide vapors to leak out into the surrounding area. So if you have your storage containers in or near a living space (such as in the bottom of your closet or under your bed), you could be exposing yourself to pesticide vapors over a long period of time. Now, it’s important to keep in mind that mothballs are releasing small amounts of a low concentration of pesticides so it would take quite a bit of prolonged exposure before you would notice any health effects, but you also don’t want to be sprinkling these around your house, car and office, or using them as air fresheners.
Naphthalene, it is one of a large group of compounds known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs. As you might gather from the name, these compounds are polycyclic and aromatic – just kidding, that’s not helpful. These compounds have two or more hydrocarbon rings that are chemically bonded together. The rings are six-sided aromatic, which contributes to (1) their fragrant smell and (2) their chemical bond strength. The same bond strength that allows them to be stable for a long period of time in an enclosed storage space is the same bond strength that prevents them from degrading, even when exposed to harsh environmental conditions. So those mothballs that get tossed into the trash or flushed down the toilet now find their way into our drinking water sources. To ensure safety and quality for drinking water consumers, treatment plants must be able to accurately determine which contaminants are present – and at what concentrations – prior to treatment. Proper analysis is preceded by proper sample preparation and solid phase extraction (SPE) offers an approach to sample preparation that can be tailored for PAH compounds. Want to see an example? Check out this application note!
We would love to hear your mothball stories – or stories of when your mothballs failed you. Please share in the comments below!