Doctors renew call for mothball ban to prevent brain damage in babies

17 June 2011

Three leading professors have welcomed last week's decision by the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicine Authority to suspend the sale of naphthalene flakes for domestic use. The professors are citing a link between exposure to naphthalene and brain damage, disability and even death in babies.

Nick Evans, Associate Professor in Neonatal Medicine at the University of Sydney, commented:

"In previously unpublished data in the Medical Journal of Australia in February we showed that NSW and Victorian poisons agencies each receive at least one call per week about a child exposed to naphthalene.

"That's probably an underestimate of the true rate of exposure. The adverse risk-benefit ratio for naphthalene in children, particularly babies, provides strong justification for its complete withdrawal.

"Information from poisons centres in the US and Canada was not presented to the authorities in those countries when they decided to allow domestic naphthalene products to remain on sale in 2008 and 2009. Naphthalene is no longer available for domestic use in Europe.

"This follows advice from the Commonwealth Department of Health and Ageing that the warning statements on these products may not be adequate to protect sensitive people and children exposed to treated fabrics."

Professor William Tarnow-Mordi, Director of the WINNER Centre for Newborn Research at Westmead Hospital and Head of Neonatal Trials at NHMRC Clinical Trials Centre, University of Sydney, said babies, particularly if affected by the genetic condition G6PD, can develop massive breakdown of their red blood cells within hours of being wrapped in clothing stored with moth repellents containing naphthalene.

"This can result in severe jaundice and brain damage with profound disability or death," he warned.

"The Australian and New Zealand Neonatal Network (ANZNN) and WINNER Centre for Newborn Research consider warning labels on mothballs are insufficient to prevent another case of brain damage or death," commented ANZNN spokesperson Associate Professor Kei Lui.

The three professors are now calling on the Advisory Committee on Chemicals Scheduling to ban mothballs and other products containing naphthalene completely in Australia at its meeting on 21 June.

Poisons Information Services in each State or Territory can give urgent advice on exposure to naphthalene.

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Victoria Hollick, 0401 711 361, 9351 2579,