Citronella-based bug sprays are getting a second chance. After a long battle with Health Canada, massive media coverage, and public outcry, the government agency has decided to review its plan to ban the product.
The sudden shift has exasperated not only manufacturers, but also scientists. They wonder why Health Canada shunned their original recommendation that citronella oil was generally safe.
The natural products manufacturer Druide is back in the citronella bug spray business, a business it says it should never have been forced out of.
Druide hadn’t dared bottle the bestseller in more than a year, after Health Canada announced it was phasing out the repellent over questions it had about the essential oil's safety.
But now, Health Canada has backtracked and is letting licensed companies like Druide once again increase production while the agency reviews its policy.
"The flip-flop is a bit worrying, why they changed their mind," says biologist John Arnason, noting that if outside pressure instead of science finally tipped the scales, "that’s not a good thing."
In 2005, the University of Ottawa professor was invited to join a government-appointed independent scientific panel to review Health Canada’s plan to phase out citronella-based bug sprays.
The plant-based oil had been used as an insect repellent in Canada for decades. But, after a review, the agency concluded there was an "absence of adequate safety data."
Insect repellents — including ones containing natural ingredients like citronella — are technically considered to be pesticides, so they must meet strict safety standards.
Arnason says the panel didn’t support the ban and deemed citronella oil to be generally safe.
He says panel members also advised Health Canada that some of the scientific research it used to base its decision on was flawed. "[It was] not very statistically sound. It had large standard deviations."
But Health Canada decided to plow ahead and phase out the bug spray. It told CBC News that "the panel supported Health Canada’s approach." Panel members we spoke with deny this.
"The government of Canada was totally ignoring the recommendations of an expert panel that they put together," says toxicologist and panel member Sam Kacew.
He adds, "I couldn't understand the position taken by the government."
The news goes public
In late August, CBC News reported on the citronella repellent ban and the panel’s disagreement with the decision.
The story got traction on social media.
Then in December, shortly before the last of the citronella bug sprays would be pulled from store shelves, Health Canada suddenly changed its position. It announced it was overturning the ban while it reviewed its policy on all essential-oil based repellents, including citronella.
The agency said the about-face was inspired by outside pressure.
Health Canada told CBC News in an email that, with the final deadline for the phase-out approaching, it had received input from citronella repellent producers and consumers.
It then reasoned, "based on the scientific information currently available … it would be in the best interest of both the public and the [manufacturers] to review its current regulatory approach."
"I must admit I’m somewhat disappointed they didn’t take our lead, rather than taking a lead from public commentary," says Arnason.
Yet another panel
Health Canada’s new review of essential oil repellents will again involve an expert scientific panel.
This has Kacew scratching his head. "I can’t see that a new panel is going to come to a different conclusion than the previous panel." The University of Ottawa toxicologist adds, “I would think it would be a waste of time and money unless there is new data available."
Health Canada tells CBC News that its review was not prompted by new scientific data on citronella, because there is none.
As of yet, neither Kacew nor Arnason has been asked to join panel number 2.
Druide’s dubious victory
Scientists aren’t the only ones displeased with Health Canada’s flip-flop. Druide gets to resume production, but owner Alain Renaud finds it difficult to declare a victory.
"It’s hard to evaluate what we lost because we lost so much," he says.
He estimates he has spent more than a decade battling Health Canada to prove his citronella repellent was not toxic.
Now, after ceasing production for more than a year, Druide has to re-establish itself in the marketplace. It must win over retailers that were previously told to dump unsold product.
"It’s a lot of money for us to reintroduce the product on the shelves because we start from nothing," he says.
He estimates his battle with Health Canada has already cost his company hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost business, and he even had to lay off a handful of staff.
And his fight with the agency is not over. Health Canada estimates the new review will take about 18 months.
Renaud says he’s hopeful there will be a positive long-term outcome for his company and consumers who could continue to have more choices in a bug spray market dominated by products with the synthetic chemical DEET.
"We are very happy because it gives the possibility for consumers to get the free choice about their health," says Renaud.