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Last year, under the radar of most consumers, Health Canada instated a ban on the sale of citronella as an insect repellent, meaning citronella would not be allowed in any formula labelled as bug spray, insect repellent or outdoor spray. Public pressure has since prompted Health Canada to postpone the ban and re-examine how it regulates plant-derived essential oils in insect repellents. Bug sprays containing citronella oil can still be found while we await a final decision in 2016.
Health Canada's Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA) argued that citronella may contain a chemical called methyl eugenol, which has demonstrated carcinogenic behaviour when fed to rats. Methyl eugenol is an organic compound that occurs in many plants including rose, basil, nutmeg, clove, tea tree, tarragon and bay leaf, not substances we consider toxic by any means. It’s estimated that Europeans eat, on average, .19 mg/kg per day, yet we are not warned about the dangers of these spices in our food or the toxicity of skin care with rose and tea tree.
The PMRA currently “makes no distinction between naturally occurring chemicals and synthetic chemicals when assessing their risks.” This guideline doesn’t account for how chemicals behave within a plant and dismisses the conclusions of the leading experts on essential oil toxicology. As Robert Tisserand writes in his book Essential Oil Safety, “Considering its lack of genotoxicity, its chemopreventive activity, and the fact that anticarcinogens constitute over 60 per cent of the oil while methyl eugenol is only found at 0–1.7%, we do not consider that citronella oil presents a material risk of carcinogenicity.” It’s confusing that the PMRA doesn’t take this into account.
Druide, a Quebec-based natural insect repellent manufacturer, gave the PMRA documents to prove that their citronella had absolutely no methyl eugenol in it, but that didn’t save their products from being removed from the shelves. The PMRA didn’t feel that there was enough safety data on citronella to approve it, something a small natural company is not in a financial position to provide. A large portion of their business has been destroyed.
It’s suspicious that the PMRA has chosen to exercise such extreme caution with citronella – an ingredient more commonly used by small manufacturers – yet this caution is absent when dealing with many other chemicals for which there is substantial evidence of toxicity.
If a Health Canada agency is able to make this type of decision against plant extracts based on how isolated chemicals behave, what is to stop similar regulations for other natural health products? This ban would set a precedent that could lead to Canadians having their favourite remedies or skin care products removed or reformulated. We need to be aware of this trend and do what we can to protect our natural health product industry.
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