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Stock up on citronella: It'll be gone soon

Health Canada orders ban on product for 2015

Emmellie Velasco sprays herself with bug spray in Assiniboine Park earlier this summer. If there was citronella in the spray there won't be for much longer: Health Canada is banning it in all insect repellents by the end of the year.

SARAH TAYLOR / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS ARCHIVES Enlarge Image

Emmellie Velasco sprays herself with bug spray in Assiniboine Park earlier this summer. If there was citronella in the spray there won't be for much longer: Health Canada is banning it in all insect repellents by the end of the year.

OTTAWA -- If you like citronella in your bug spray, you had better stock up before Christmas.

After the New Year, you will not find it on any shelves because Health Canada says nobody has been able to sufficiently prove citronella is safe when applied to the skin. Citronella is an essential oil obtained from the lemongrass plant.

The Pest Management Regulatory Agency of Canada regulates and approves for use all insect repellent.

In 2004, Health Canada made a move to phase out citronella insect repellents as part of a review of all pesticides that had been approved prior to 1995 to make sure they met modern health and environmental standards.

The majority of the products were discontinued in 2012 because most of the companies that manufacture them didn't have the money to do any of the required testing themselves. A small number that did had until this year to submit new data.

"The ones who did, failed," a spokesman for Health Canada said.

The last few products will be pulled from the approved Health Canada registry at the end of December.

NDP health critic Libby Davies said she is confused by the decision and thinks Health Canada should reconsider.

"I use citronella and many Canadians use citronella because they don't want to use harsh chemicals," she said.

"Obviously, health and safety are paramount, but this seems excessive."

The main issue around citronella isn't that studies have shown it to be unsafe. Rather, there are no acceptable studies in Canada showing it is safe. But Davies said studies in the United States have done just that. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency approves citronella as a non-toxic biochemical that can be used in lotions, sprays, cloth wipes and other products.

Davies wants Health Canada to stop its plans to bar the products from store shelves here and review the available material from the United States.

"We're not saying just let it go, we're saying take another look at it," said Davies. "They need to look at whether this is good public policy."

Insect repellents containing the chemical DEET are allowed as long as they are in acceptable concentrations and include labels about the proper amount and timing of applications.

Ciara Preteau, a worker owner at the Organic Planet Worker Co-op in Wolseley, said "it's patently absurd" a chemical such as DEET is allowed but a natural product such as citronella is not.

"They need to change the safety requirements for natural products," said Preteau.

She said most manufacturers of natural products don't have the capital to do the large-scale studies Health Canada requires, unlike major chemical manufacturers. Preteau said safety decisions shouldn't be dictated by one's ability to pay.

The Co-op still sells lots of citronella products, but just doesn't market them as bug spray. "We have conversations with our customers about it," she said. "It's all like a wink and a nod."

Preteau likened it to the period when the chemical aspartame was approved in Canada but the natural sweetener stevia was not. Stevia was eventually approved for use as a food additive in Canada in 2012 after testing met Health Canada requirements.

mia.rabson@freepress.mb.ca

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