A rack of clothes
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What's in your clothes closet?

From small spaces to luxurious walk-ins, closets make life easier and help organize our homes and our clothes. But closets can also be a significant source of indoor air pollution, making everyone in the home feel sick and even ruining the clothes.

From small spaces to luxurious walk-ins, closets make life easier and help organize our homes and our clothes. But closets can also be a significant source of indoor air pollution, making everyone in the home feel sick and even ruining the clothes and other items they are supposed to help maintain. The problem is chemicals, and there are two important sources of chemical pollution that may be in your clothes and in your closet:

  1. Dry cleaning chemicals
  2. Mothballs

#1 Dry cleaning chemicals

Perchloroethylene, also known as “perc,” is a chemical used by most dry cleaners to remove stains from clothing. Perc is a solvent that is mixed with a low amount of water or other liquids in commercial dry-cleaning machines.

Wearing clothes cleaned with perc is not considered a risk to your health. But off-gassing of perc in your closet is another story. Perc is considered a “possible to probable human carcinogen.” In laboratory tests it causes cancer in mice and rats when inhaled. Since perc continues to off-gas from clothes that were treated with the chemicals, the toxic chemical can build up ina closets where dry cleaned clothes are hung. Even with the cleaner’s plastic wrap removed, dry-cleaned clothes can continue to emit perc for more than 2 weeks.

What to do: Dry-cleaned clothes should be aired out in an open area, such as the garage, for up to two weeks after removing the plastic wrapping from the cleaners. Alternatively, seek out environmentally friendly dry cleaners that use new wet-cleaning machines or liquid carbon dioxide cleaning as an alternative to perc.

#1 Mothballs

Mothballs are small balls of pesticides, usually naphthalene, that turn from solid to a toxic vapor that kills moths and their larvae. Naphthalene is a volatile organic compound (VOC) that is formed as a white solid. Inhalation or contact with naphthalene is associated with anemia, liver damage and neurologic conditions, among other effects. Long-term exposure to naphthalene may cause cancer.

What to do: Mothballs should only be used sparingly, if at all. Always carefully follow all directions on the packaging. Items stored with mothballs should be cleaned thoroughly before use, to remove all mothball odors. Because moths are most likely to infest soiled clothing, always clean clothing thoroughly before putting items into storage. When using mothballs, only use them in airtight containers that don’t leak toxic vapors into the surrounding air in your closet. Consider trying environmentally friendly alternatives such as cedar balls or cedar chests to kill or repel moths, or other natural moth repellants such as dried lavender.

Your closets may be the smallest contained spaces where you live, but they have a huge impact on air quality throughout your home. A clean and healthy closet will not only help you get organized, but reward everyone in the home with cleaner, healthier air to breathe year round. This online publication is brought to you by The IQAir Group, which develops innovative air quality solutions for indoor environments around the globe.

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