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Cedar closets and mothballs

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Q. We have an old Victorian that has a large closet, almost the size of a bedroom, next to the master bedroom. The closet is covered in cedar wood, which we were told can protect clothes from moths. We wondered why the previous owner did that, since they also spread mothballs all around the closet. We want to make the master bedroom bigger by using part of the closet and taking out the cedar. Can the cedar be reused if we put it in the basement? We wonder whether cedar loses the ability to discourage moths and why the former owner also used mothballs? Any thoughts?

A. Well, not being a moth, I don’t know the threshold for when I could fly back to continue munching on that wool sweater, but the sap-producing odor of cedar does diminish after seven to 10 years.  

I think the former owner must have had a really bad experience with moths and/or lost a lot of clothing to them. The natural smell of cedar diminishes over time, as the oils in the wood dissipate into the air. In a closed space it may take longer, but the natural moth-repelling scent comes from the cutting of the wood and exposing the sap in the fibers. After you remove the cedar panels from the former closet and set up a new space, the cedar smell can be revived by lightly sanding the wood, which could have saved investing in mothballs altogether.

Mothballs are toxic to most pets, and although people think they can kill animals that intrude into attics or basements, they’re not recommended for this purpose. Mothballs, made from poisonous naphthalene or para-dicloro-benzene, not only are noxious smelling, but can cause serious illness to any animal, including humans. The more noticeable effects are eye and skin irritation, headaches, nausea and breathing problems, with nose and throat irritation that can cause continuous, unrelenting coughing. If you’re around the mothballs in that closet long enough, you may develop liver and kidney damage as the body struggles to deal with filtering the toxin.

The best and safest way to protect natural-fiber clothing, which is what moths and silverfish are after, is to store the garments in tightly closed containers that moths can’t pry open. Since I’ve never seen a moth flying around with a crowbar, this should be easy to do, and much safer than the toxic solutions previous generations used. I once measured a home to produce renovation drawings, and it had a large walk-in cedar closet. I was in that room for less than two minutes when I began to feel an extreme headache and coughing, so I know that it doesn’t take much to become ill from the scent. With so many container types and shapes available, I recommend the less toxic method to store clothing. Good luck.

© 2020 Monte Leeper. Readers are encouraged to send questions to yourhousedr@aol.com, with “Herald question” in the subject line, or to Herald Homes, 2 Endo Blvd., Garden City, NY 11530, Attn: Monte Leeper, architect.