How to get mothball stink out of a dresser that's already been empty of mothballs for years?
October 14, 2011 11:50 AM   Subscribe

How do we get mothball fumes out of a dresser (not just mask the scent), when the dresser has already been sitting empty for years and still stinks?

A few years ago, we received a dresser from my husband's grandmother's house, and it's super-nice in every way, and we really would like to use it ASAP, except that it still reeks of mothballs. We had it up in our attic, with an old blanket in one of the drawers that we thought might draw the smell out over time, but all that did was make the blanket stink, too, with no apparent effect on the rest of the dresser.

A few weeks ago, we put the drawers outside in the garage, but we didn't put the housing out because it's hard to move. Last week, we put it back together again and put our daughter's clothes in it. Today, she walked past me and I smelled mothballs. Ew. So I took everything out and am spending the day washing every article of clothing she owns, because it all smells vaguely of mothballs. (We'll also remove the dresser from her room this evening so that she isn't breathing any residual fumes.)

So... how do we get this thing to off-gas all the remaining mothball fumes? I can't believe that after several years, the thing would still be stinking. I'm not sure if even sanding the interior would help, since the interior wood is unstained and likely porous.

One alternative would be the commercial products ("Smell-eze," etc.). But do they actually remove the gasses, or just mask the odor? Since it's meant for a young child's room, I don't want any nasty off-gassing happening, odorous or not.

Another thing we haven't yet managed to do is taking the whole thing outdoors and taking the drawers out -- would that work? Would it take hours, days, weeks? Or is it just not possible to "air out" wood?
posted by palliser to Home & Garden (13 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I moved into a new furnished place last year and the dressers were dank and stinky. I bought a bag of charcoal briquettes and put one each in the spaces of an old egg carton and put a full carton in each drawer. It took about a week, but the smell was pretty much gone. I do keep a half-carton of charcoal in a few drawers still. YMMV
posted by lakersfan1222 at 11:54 AM on October 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Lightly moisten a cloth with white vinegar and rub down the insides of the drawers. Dry outdoors if you want, or crumple up some newspaper pages and stuff them in the drawers to help absorb the odor as the drawers dry.
posted by Oriole Adams at 12:04 PM on October 14, 2011

Put it outside in the sunshine for as long as you can. Days? I've asked about getting rid of mothball smells before. There's no quick fix.
posted by gnutron at 12:05 PM on October 14, 2011

Get a can of crappy supermarket coffee. Divide it into bowls and put them in each drawer. Leave it open if you can, put it somewhere breezy if you can... the wood will eventually stop smelling, but it'll take a while.
posted by bink at 12:24 PM on October 14, 2011

I'd also recommend charcoal. I've had good luck with it in stinky shoes where nothing else worked.

Potatoes and onions cut in half are supposed to work well too.
posted by fshgrl at 12:42 PM on October 14, 2011

Best answer: I thought mothballs were all napthalene, but wikipedia says they're all 1,4-dichlorobenzene now (as it's not flammable). It's still vulnerable to oxidation and warmer temperatures will accelerate it. Sunlight is listed is often given as a good disinfectant because high-energy photons (UV light) often have enough energy to break the bonds of volatiles and help transform the chemical into something you can't smell.

Generally, reapidly oxidizing anything containing chlorine isn't particularly healthy for you, so I'd stop short of recommending you bleach the thing. (Bleach is a good oxidizer, but chlorine gas is quite bad for your lungs.)

Sadly, things like coffee are just trying to cover up the odor. It'll still be there.
posted by introp at 12:49 PM on October 14, 2011

If it's wood, take the drawers back outside and sand them. Inside and out.
posted by pink candy floss at 1:05 PM on October 14, 2011

Response by poster: It may still be naphthalene, as the mothballs would have been put in the dresser more than 5 years ago, and probably quite a bit longer than that, since we got the dresser 4 years ago and it's so thoroughly impregnated.
posted by palliser at 1:11 PM on October 14, 2011

I know some people that swear by the Bad Air Sponge
posted by dottiechang at 2:35 PM on October 14, 2011

Best answer: Naphthalene will breakdown with a halflife of 4-5 days, given lots of sunlight and oxygen. Napthalene isn't terribly water soluble, but soap can help quite a lot. Use something mild like dish soap.

If it is p-DCB, it does not break down in sunlight. It's half-life in light and air is about 50 days. However, it is quite a bit more water soluble than napthalene, so a good wash with soap and water may well remove most of it.

Oxidizing is a common way to decontaminate surfaces, but it's really not a good idea with chorinated compounds, as introp says. Given that you're not sure of the compound involved, I'd skip it.
posted by bonehead at 2:47 PM on October 14, 2011

But do they actually remove the gasses, or just mask the odor?

Fabreze does remove "odour" compounds from the air. Cyclodextrins are known to capture PAHs (eg Naphthalene) efficiently, as well as dichlorobenzenes. You could do worse than giving the piece a good spraydown, followed by a water wash to remove the cyclodextrin complexes. A wee bit of soap would not hurt either.
posted by bonehead at 2:55 PM on October 14, 2011

Activated charcoal.
posted by jferg at 3:53 PM on October 14, 2011

I would first try the activated charcoal as recommended above. If that doesn't work, try shellac. Shellac products are used to seal off smells after structure fires. You can buy Zinsser's shellac (it's called Seal Coat) at most hardware stores. Because shellac is dissolved in denatured alcohol, it's a little stinky itself as you're applying it. But it dries/offgasses quickly. Just coat all the inside surfaces with shellac, including the drawers. Good luck and I hope you're successful with whatever method you use!
posted by killy willy at 11:36 AM on October 15, 2011

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