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Their use when clothing is stored out-of-season gave rise to the colloquial usage of the terms mothballed and put into mothballs to refer to anything which is put into storage or whose operation is suspended.
Composition and safety
Older mothballs consisted primarily of naphthalene, but due to naphthalene's flammability, modern mothballs use 1,4-dichlorobenzene instead. Both of these ingredients have a strong, pungent odor often associated strongly with mothballs. Camphor, an insect repellent, can be used in mothballs also.
The idea with both chemicals is to kill moths and moth larvae with the fumes. Both naphthalene and paradichlorobenzene sublimate, meaning they transition from a solid straight to a gas. The gas is toxic to the moths.
For either of these chemicals to be effective, they need to be placed with the clothing in a sealed container so the fumes can build up and kill the moths. In a sealed atmosphere like this, the fumes are not harmful to people because they are contained. The main threat would occur when opening the containers, or from wearing clothes immediately after opening (especially a problem for infants). A solution is to open the containers outside and let the clothes hang and air out for a day before wearing.
Mothballs can also be used as a snake repellent. Mothballs (or sulfur) is usually used along with the aid of naphtha for these purposes. When mixed together, the snake sampling the air senses its acrid stench and its scent sampling is overloaded by the stench. It can't sense prey or danger as well with this smell, so it turns away. Put the mothballs around the perimeter of your yard leaving an "escape" for the snakes to get away or they will be locked in your yard. Caution should be exercised, as mothballs are not child or pet friendly and they can kill some types of plants. Rain or water will disintegrate the mothballs, so frequent reapplication will be necessary.
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- Mothballs Case Profile - National Pesticide Information Center
- Mothballs: Naphthalene and Paradichlorobenzene - National Pesticide Information Center
- Mothball hazards - Purdue University
- Mothball effectiveness - Argonne National Laboratory Ask A Scientist
- Polarised micrograph of paradichlorobenzene crystals