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Health Risks From Mothball High

Teens who sniff or chew mothballs to get high may be taking a big health risk.

Abusing the chemical in mothballs can cause mental sluggishness, unsteady walking and skin rash, warn French doctors who treated a girl hospitalized for the problem in Marseille.

In a letter published in The New England Journal of Medicine, the doctors tell a cautionary tale about twin 18-year-old girls they treated.

The first twin came to a Marseille hospital with several problems. She walked unsteadily, was mentally sluggish, had had a scaly rash that lasted a month, and was retaining urine.

The doctors — who included Lionel Feuillet, M.D., who worked at a different Marseille hospital, the Hôpital de la Timone — ran medical tests on the girl but couldn't figure out why she was sick.

Then they discovered her twin also had a scaly rash — although to a lesser degree — and an unsteady gait. (This twin did not require hospitalization.)

But the family had no history of nerve or skin problems.

Mothball Use Discovered

A few days later, the doctors made a breakthrough.

"We accidentally discovered a bag of mothballs in the first patient's hospital room," they write.

"The mothballs contained paradichlorobenzene (PDB) as the only active substance," Feuillet and colleagues continue.

"It turned out that both sisters had been encouraged by classmates to use mothballs as a recreational drug," they add. Blood and urine tests confirmed the diagnosis.

Why was one twin sicker than the other? She had been sniffing mothballs for four to six months and chewing mothballs for two months, while her twin had sniffed mothballs for only a few weeks before the doctors saw her.

The twins recovered after several mothball-free months.

Doctors should consider the possibility of mothball abuse when seeing patients with scaly skin and neurological problems, write Feuillet and colleagues.

Mothball abuse may be rare. "We are aware of only three other cases of self-intoxication with PDB," the doctors write.

But because the high from PDB can be hidden, experts may not have a true sense of its abuse, the doctors write.

Other household products, including insect repellants, air fresheners, toilet-bowl and diaper-pail deodorizers, and fungicides, also contain PDB, Feuillet's team notes.

SOURCES:: Feuillet, L. The New England Journal of Medicine, July 27, 2006; Vol. 355: pp. 423-424. Reuters.

By Miranda Hitti.
Reviewed by Louise Chang, M.D.
© 2006, WebMD Inc. All rights reserved

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