During my initial panic attack, my closet didnt worry me. I thought, Whats scary about clothing? But one whiff and I knew better. The canned air had a chemical smell, which I later discovered was traces of dry-cleaning fluid (trapped in those ubiquitous plastic bags) and mothballs, which usually contain paradichlorobenzene.
“Mothballs are really dangerous chemicals,” says Philip J. Landrigan, MD, chairman of the Department of Community and Preventive Medicine and professor of pediatrics at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. “The vapors are carcinogenic and are also irritating to the nervous system.” (In fact, if your child swallows one, it can be fatal.) Inhaling mothball vapors overnight doesnt mean you will get cancer tomorrow, Carpenter explains, but it increases your long-term risk. So use safer moth-repelling alternatives like dried-lavender and cedar products, says Debra Lynn Dadd, author of Home Safe Home.
And your work clothes swathed in dry-cleaning bags? They harbor perchloroethylene, the most common dry-cleaning chemical, which causes cancer in lab animals, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Heavy exposure to this substance can cause dizziness and confusion, even in adults, so its best to minimize your use of dry cleaning, Landrigan says.
Machine-wash whatever you can on the delicate cycle. (Not everything labeled “dry-clean only” needs it.) Another option: Find a professional cleaner who uses less-toxic solutions, like CO2, or does wet cleaning (a combo of water, biodegradable soap, and steam in special machines); to find one near you, check out www.nodryclean.com or www.findco2.com. If you have an item conventionally dry-cleaned, remove it from plastic and air it outside for several hours before hanging it in the closet. This will give the chemicals time to evaporate, reducing the health risk, Landrigan says.