Exposure to the chemical naphthalene – found in some moth balls, tobacco smoke, emissions from coal- and wood-burning stoves and even some house paints – can damage kids’ DNA in ways that may raise cancer risk. In a recent study of 113 5-year-olds, researchers from the Columbia Center for Children's Environmental Health (CCCEH) found “chromosomal aberrations” that scramble genetic coding in 30 kids.
Those with higher levels of naphthalene in their urine were more likely to have DNA disturbances of a type called chromosomal translocations known to increase risk for precancers in adults. The researchers are continuing to follow these children. "Translocations can persist for years after exposure. Some accumulated damage will be repaired, but not everyone's repair capacity is the same. Previous studies have suggested that chromosomal breaks can double an adult's lifetime risk for cancer, though implications for children are unknown," lead study author Manuela A. Orjuela, M.D., Sc.M., said in a Columbia University press release.
In the meantime, it makes sense to keep naphthalene out of the house.
Moth balls contain either naphthalene or paradichlorobenzene – both of which become a gas when exposed to air, releasing that signature, pungent mothball odor. While plenty of people use mothballs to repel moths in clothing and stored carpets and to keep pests out of the house or garden, they’re a health hazard for kids for several reasons. Naphthalene exposure can cause red blood cells to break apart, a condition known as hemolytic anemia. Little kids may eat mothballs or flakes, thinking its candy.