While I was away on vacation my roommate put mothballs in the kitchen cabinets where the pots and pans and cutlery are stored. I have removed them and thrown them out ( not sure if I was overreacting or not). Should I wash the utensils that were in the cabinets or should it be fine?


I doubt that there's enough naphthalene deposited on the cutlery to give you severe poisoning, although it may taste bad. Based on the rat/mouse lethal doses, you would need to ingest ~50 gr of the stuff to die from it (of course, you would experience adverse effects at much smaller amounts). It seems like chronic exposure to naphthalene is where you really start getting problems - so definitely don't mothball cutlery as a regular thing in the future! Nevertheless, it is a harmful chemical so I would wash them just to be sure.

Naphthalene is an organic compound and has very poor solubility in water (32 mg/l at room temperature) so regular washing might not remove it effectively. Meanwhile, alcohol can dissolve 11.3 g/l (1000 times more!) and acetic acid (vinegar) can do 13.1 g/l. Granted, soap is supposed to solubilize things, and since you would wash with soap and not just water, solubility shouldn't be as big a problem in reality, but it's worth taking care to ensure it actually gets removed. So my needlessly complicated procedure that I would suggest to you is:

  • Thoroughly wash with vinegar, as warm as possible (use rubber gloves)
  • Thoroughly wash with soapy water, as warm as possible. Remember to also wash the gloves and your sink to remove residue on them.
  • Thoroughly wipe with alcohol. I think ideally you want close to 100% (if you have Everclear that would be about perfect), but in a pinch rubbing alcohol (typically 60-70%) would do or even a strong spirit like vodka. After wiping the alcohol off, leave to dry as alcohol will quickly evaporate.

At the end, ventilate the room, wait an hour or so, and see if you smell any of it from sink/cutlery. Hopefully the answer is no and you'll be good to go. This method is probably overkill and will REALLY get the naphthalene out, but it would only take a few minutes (excluding the drying and checking for smell) and you don't have to worry afterwards.

For cutlery, I don't think it's worth throwing them out for something like this. Naphthalene is pretty volatile, so even leaving them in a warm, well-ventilated place for a few days without the above washing would probably get rid of most of it as the napthalene evaporates (technically, sublimates) and dissipates in the air. With pans, I'm not so sure. My guess that there's no difference and the pans can be used after cleaning just like cutlery, but then since you heat those, small amounts of it conceivably might react with the teflon or itself and make something nasty. I would throw away if it's a very cheap pan, if not just wash with vinegar, soap and alcohol as I say above and you should be fine.

  • FYI: Isopropyl alcohol (i.e. rubbing alcohol) is commonly available, in consumer quantities, in concentrations from 60% to 99%. The most common I've seen are 70% and 90% or 91%.
    – Makyen
    Jan 13 '19 at 19:18
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    No, just do the first two steps. Alcohol over 80% has methanol added, which is very poisonous. Rubbing alcohol is also poisonous. Either of these is going to be just as harmful as naphthalene, or more harmful. By the time you've washed once with vinegar and once with soapy water, the naphthalene will all be gone anyway. Jan 13 '19 at 19:52
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    @DawoodibnKareem: Both methanol and isopropanol are very volatile (much more volatile than naphthalene), so I don't think you have to worry much about them sticking around. Jan 13 '19 at 20:55
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    @wizzwizz4, I used to work with methanol on a regular basis. The cleanup procedure after a major spill was "ventilate the room for a while". (The cleanup procedure for a minor spill was "wipe it up and keep working".)
    – Mark
    Jan 14 '19 at 5:32
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    Did you throw out a) the mothballs, b) the cookware or c) the roommate? Jan 14 '19 at 11:55

From a personal stand point; anytime i expose any untinsils used to eat or prepare a meal i sanitize them. I was them and then i will boil just to make sure that all contaminants are gone. Especially if you are caring for a family or elderly it is important because they are more susceptible to allergene than anyone due to the weaker immune system.

  • 5
    Boiling won't help much for getting naphthalene off cookware. It's not very water-soluble, and its boiling point is well above that of water. (Boiling's also not much good for oils, or oven cleaner, or any of a variety of other things you might spill on them.)
    – Mark
    Jan 14 '19 at 5:36

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