The end of 2014 was supposed to mark the end of citronella-based bug sprays for sale in Canada.

But CBC news has learned Health Canada is now backtracking on its ban due to public pressure. After receiving feedback about the move, the agency has decided to re-examine its regulations around personal insect repellents containing plant-based essential oils, including citronella. Until the review’s conclusion, sometime in 2016, currently registered citronella repellents can continue to be sold.

Bug sprays — including plant-based ones — are considered pesticides so they must meet strict safety regulations. After being available to consumers for years, Health Canada proposed phasing out citronella repellents in 2004 due to the "the absence of adequate safety data."

'It is a fantastic victory for the freedom of choosing natural preparations against mosquitoes' - Druide owner Alain Renaud

But, shortly before the last of the repellents were to be pulled from store shelves, the agency changed its position. In a statement, Health Canada told CBC, with the deadline 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" to review its regulations.

It added, "The review will examine how to meet the requirements of the Pest Control Products Act while exploring alternative ways to assess [plant-based essential oil insect repellents.]" 

Media attention

Toxicologist Sam Kacew believes the public outcry was sparked by recent news coverage about the ban. The flood of media attention began with a CBC News report back in August.

“There was a lot of negative publicity regarding the steps that [Health Canada] took,” said Kacew. He believes the agency may have concluded it made a mistake “and they have to re-look at what they're doing. So I think it's good news from my perspective.”

In 2005, Kacew sat on an independent scientific panel to review Health Canada’s position on the repellent. He told CBC News back in August that he disagreed with the ban because the panel concluded citronella oil was generally safe as long as it didn’t contain the contaminant, methyl eugenol.

“The panel recommendation was that the products that were out on the market were not producing any adverse effects on the consumer,” said the University of Ottawa professor.

Health Canada’s new review will include another scientific panel. So far, Kacew has not been invited to join it.

Citronella’s second chance

Montreal natural products company, Druide, had been making government-approved citronella-based bug repellents since 1995. But it ceased production this year because Health Canada had told the company it could no longer sell the product in 2015.

Now the company has the green light to once again ramp up production. “It is a fantastic victory for the freedom of choosing natural preparations against mosquitoes,” said Druide owner Alain Renaud.

Citronella repellents were a bestseller for the company, attracting consumers who prefer plant-based bug sprays over ones with the synthetic chemical, DEET that dominate the marketplace.

While he welcomes the review, Renaud said because his company has already phased out the repellent, it will be a struggle to re-establish it: “Druide has already lost major distribution channels in the pharmacy industry.”

Yann Daigneault, Druide’s sales manager, said the company also has a public relations hurdle because of Health Canada’s original decision. “It's kind of confusing when people call us and say, is your product dangerous? And we have to explain to them, no, it's safe,” he said.

PETA pleased

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), which opposes animal testing, also welcomes the Health Canada review. Originally, manufacturers like Druide could have circumvented the ban if they had been able to afford expensive animal trials to prove citronella oil’s safety.

When news broke about the ban, several concerned Canadian PETA members contacted its U.S. affiliate. “We were all pretty surprised. It came out of left field,” said Jessica Sandler, senior director of PETA U.S.'s regulatory testing department. That’s because the United States considers citronella-based bug sprays safe.

PETA U.S. then fired off two letters to Health Canada, protesting the need for animal testing and emphasizing the approval of the product south of the border. CBC News obtained copies of Health Canada’s responses. In its first reply, dated Oct. 29, the agency defended its original position. Then in a second letter, dated Dec. 11, Health Canada told PETA that it was re-examining its regulations of insect repellents containing essential oils.

“One of [PETA’s] goals is to facilitate this kind of discussion so that the use of animals in any experiments is not the default,” Sandler said.

Back to business

Druide plans to reboot production in the new year so it can replenish store shelves by mosquito season this summer. The company hopes that, following its review, Health Canada will allow its citronella-based bug sprays to remain permanently on the market.  

“It's been around already for 20 years, so there's no reason why it shouldn't be around for another 20 years at least,” Druide’s Daigneault said.