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Citronella for skin may be squashed

If Canadian manufacturers and distributors of citronella pest-control products for skin don't pony up some research data soon, Health Canada may yank their products from store shelves.

The Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA), a division of Health Canada, has been asking companies for more scientific proof that their products are safe to put on skin.

"It's not that citronella products pose an imminent health risk, but Health Canada doesn't have enough data to say that it's safe," said Chris Shepski, spokesperson for the PMRA. He confirmed that the agency has a proposed phase-out plan for skin-based citronella products.

Health Canada requires that companies submit testing data on their products to show that they do not have adverse health effects. It is part of an ongoing process to re-evaluate all pesticide products that were approved prior to 1995.

Some of the companies, especially the smaller Canadian-based operations, maintain that they do not have the money to conduct the extensive testing that Health Canada requires for the products' re-evaluation. Others say that they have not even been contacted.

"The PMRA has not asked us for any information, nor contacted us at any point for data," said Bridget Atkins, a spokeswoman for New Hampshire-based Tender Corp.

"We have registered with the government to sell the product in Canada for the last seven years, which some companies don't even choose to do, and have gone through a stringent process to show that our product is safe."

Tender manufactures Natrapel, and advertises its product as a plant-based alternative to DEET.

The threat of West Nile virus has led to the increased use of repellants to keep away mosquitoes, which carry the disease. But a lot of consumers don't like the idea of using products that contain the chemical DEET. That's created a demand for so-called "natural" bug repellants.

"I get lots more questions from patients about natural repellants in the wake of West Nile," said Jennifer Armstrong, a physician with the Ottawa Environmental Health Clinic. "My patients are more afraid of chemicals than West Nile itself."

Yet the fact that citronella is derived from a plant doesn't satisfy all critics.

"Citronella is undoubtedly a natural product, and in some people's minds that immediately makes it okay," Keith Solomon, a professor of toxicology at the University of Guelph, said. "But, in fact, many natural substances are very toxic, as the most toxic substance known to humans is a natural one, the botulinus toxin."

Meanwhile, other members of the science and legal communities think the PMRA is overreacting.

"The focus on citronella makes a mockery of the science that's actually out there," Paul Muldoon, a lawyer for the Canadian Environmental Law Association, said.

"There's a list of hundreds of substances of concern in studies we have released of what could be very dangerous to people, and citronella's nowhere near it," he added.

Even so, Mr. Shepski says there is a "data gap" between what Health Canada wants and the companies are providing.

"We've passed all the testing for the American Environmental Protection Agency and sent it to Canada 10 years ago," said Bruce Schennum, vice-president of research at Oregon-based Quantum, Inc. His company may stop supplying citronella spray-on repellent to Purity Life Health Products of Acton, Ont. "Our product sells well in Canada but we simply can't spend tens of hundreds of thousands on it."

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