Stupid drug story of the week: Mothball abuse.

Media criticism.
July 28 2006 6:47 PM

Stupid Drug Story of the Week

The mothball menace.

Journalists have turned the radar up so high in their coverage of illicit drug use that a pair of migrating Blackburnian warblers would look like a squadron of B-52s if they applied the same scrutiny to the skies.

This week's example of journalistic overkill in the pursuit of a drug story owes its origin to a 400-word letter in the July 27 edition of the New England Journal of Medicine titled "Twin Girls With Neurocutaneous Symptoms Caused by Mothball Intoxication," in which three physicians in France solve a medical mystery posed by an 18-year-old patient.

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The woman had developed a grotty leg rash over the course of month, possessed an "unsteady gait," and displayed "mental sluggishness," among other symptoms. Her twin sister had the same lesions. During her hospitalization the doctors discovered a stash of mothballs in her room. "It turned out that both sisters had been encouraged by classmates to use mothballs as a recreational drug," the physicians write.

The girls had inhaled the fumes, also know as "huffing" or "bagging," and one ate the balls as well. Doctors discovered the active substance in mothballs, paradichlorobenzene, in the young patient's bloodstream. Putting her on a mothball-free diet, she was noticeably better in two months and recovered completely in six. Her sister recovered, too.

How common is paradichlorobenzene self-intoxication? The doctors discovered only three other cases of it the medical literature, dating back to 1961, 1970, and 1992. From this slim medical anecdote, the world press has created a drug panic. Among the first news organizations to post a sensationalized account of the story was the Reuters wire service, which titled its July 26 report "Teenagers Using Mothballs Get High: Study." Yes, teenagersareusing mothballs to get high if two young ladies in Marseille constitute a sufficient population to establish a meaningful medical plural.

The next day, CNN.com International published a version of the Reuters story under the headline "Teenagers 'Bagging' Mothballs to Get High." Canada's CBC News Web site headlined a derivative account of the story, "Teens Sniffing Mothballs to Get High, Doctors Report." The Aussie press developed a contact high from the story: "Teens Get High on Mothballs," screamed the country's national daily, the Australian. The Melbourne Herald Sun, the Courier Mail, the Sunday Times, the Sydney Morning Herald, and the Daily Telegraph all combine the words "teens" and "mothballs" in their headlines to announce the plague.

Savvy drug scholars have long blamed coverage like this for popularizing relatively unknown intoxicants among teens and others. Edward M. Brecher devotes a chapter to the topic—"How To Launch a Nationwide Drug Panic"—in his landmark book from 1972, Licit and Illicit Drugs.

To be sure, the inhalation of paradichlorobenzene or any hydrocarbon huffers used to get high—glue, gasoline, household cleaners, paint, furniture polish, paint thinner, et al.—poses serious medical dangers. See this fact sheet from Web MD. Yet the press's headlines blew the "mothball menace" completely out of proportion. The only circumspect headline accompanying the story that I found appeared in the Houston Chronicle. "Mothball-Sniffing Underreported, Teens' Doctors Say," it states.

While the hacks were huffing the mothball story into Earth orbit, three news organizations—UPI, Raleigh News & Observer, and the Globe & Mail—remained sober enough to cover new medical findings about the dangers posed by another household hydrocarbon, 1,4-dichlorobenzene. (Since writing this I've learned that they're actually the same compound. See the addendum below.) The chemical was common in some air fresheners and toilet bowl cleaners until 10 years ago and can still be found in some mothball products, the News & Observer reports. The National Institutes of Health's July 27 press release cited its significant study that 1,4-DCB may reduce lung function and exacerbate existing respiratory problems.

What will it take to get Reuters and the rest to report on 1,4-DCB? A letter to the New England Journal of Medicine about two French kids getting sick after eating urinal cakes?

Addendum, 9:24 p.m.:My chemically minded readers tell me that 1,4-dichlorobenzene and paradichlorobenzene are the same compound, which this EPA Web site  confirms. Isn't that rich? The press has devoted tons more coverage and interest on two French girls dosing themselves with the chemical than the potentially ill effects experienced by hundreds of millions exposed to it every day. Chem-head and "Press Box" reader Nathan Okerlund shares this sharp observation with me: "It is very strange that something that makes headlines as an intoxicant is ignored as a pollutant."

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Today, mothballs. Tomorrow, cedar blocks? Send your predictions to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)

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Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.