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The Problem With Lavender Oil

An EU proposal to label the essential oil as dangerous is meeting French resistance

by Alex Scott
October 13, 2014 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 92, Issue 41

Lavender field.
Credit: Laura K. Scott
Farmers who grow lavender in Provence are pushing back against regulations requiring them to label lavender products as possibly dangerous.

All is not well in the sun-drenched lavender fields of southern France. The mere mention of European chemical regulations to one of the 2,000 or so lavender growers in the Provence region is likely to elicit a roll of the eyes and a reach for a bottle of pastis, the local liquor.

The problem is that at least one company has notified the European Chemicals Agency that the essential oils in lavender can cause allergic reactions. As a result, ECHA is set to classify the oil as a “skin sensitizer.” And that means that under European Union labeling and packaging rules, lavender-oil-based products will have to carry health warnings starting in 2018.

Although the final wording for the label has yet to be chosen, it could be along the lines of “May Be Fatal If Swallowed Or Inhaled.” Arguing that this is the kind of label more often associated with bleach or lye, lavender farmers in Provence have organized a campaign to fight it.

The main application of lavender oil is as a fragrance although it also has antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties. An example is the oil’s ability to kill the parasite Giardia, which causes diarrhea and nausea. Key components in lavender oil include the terpene alcohol linalool and linalyl acetate, the acetate ester of linalool.

Farmers argue that lavender oil should be classified as an agricultural—not chemical—product. They say the proposed labeling would put off customers and harm their livelihoods. Many lavender farmers in Provence have peppered their fields with signs proclaiming that “lavender is not a chemical product” or pleading, “Help us: Save the lavender!”

“Everyone I know who sells lavender products at markets is against these plans,” says René Galvin, who for years has grown lavender near Moustiers Sainte Marie in Provence. Amid his colorful fields, Galvin runs a tiny, intensely fragrant shop with pots of lavender flower honey, multicolored lavender soaps, and an array of bottles containing blends of lavender oil.

“Lavender extract isn’t dangerous, you know. There’s no chemical matter in the products,” he says. “We obtain it by distilling the flower in steam. The essence comes out of the flower, and there’s nothing else.”

Marie France Bourjac, who runs two distilleries near Moustiers Sainte Marie, is another local who doesn’t see the logic of lavender product labels. “We’ve been using essential oil for generations. For allergies, okay, maybe there was one person once who said he was allergic to it,” she allows.

Bourjac claims that she would close her business out of principle rather than agree to labeling her products with health warnings. “We won’t put the labels on,” she declares.

PPAM de France, an industry association representing 1,500 growers of fragrant and medicinal plants in France, is also fighting the labeling of lavender products. It began a campaign in July.

The International Fragrance Association, a Switzerland-based body representing producers of natural oils, takes a more conciliatory tone. Commenting on its website about a meeting in April between the European Commission and fragrance industry groups from France, Italy, and Bulgaria, the association states that distillers are “willing to embrace their responsibility and comply with the new legislation, but that they require some guidelines specific to their sector.”

To the north in Brussels, where most EU bureaucrats are based, discussions are ongoing between regulators and industry groups about how the labels must be applied. The European Commission estimates the talks will conclude sometime next year.

So far, though, regulators show no sign of backing down. If the farmers of Provence refuse to apply the labels, the commission could impose sanctions.

Doing so might seem ironic given that Europe’s chemical regulations were conceived to combat pollution from synthetic—not natural—products. But ECHA makes no apologies. The basis for the regulations, the agency tells C&EN, “is to ensure a high level of protection of human health and the environment as well as the free movement of substances, mixtures, and articles, regardless of whether these come from natural sources, or are synthetic, or from big or smaller companies.”

If French lavender farmers go through with threats to switch to other crops—an act that would change the identity of Provence—political pressure on EU legislators would no doubt intensify. Meanwhile, Bourjac, the lavender oil distiller, reiterates her threat. Rather than apply labels classifying her products as hazardous, “we’ll just stop our production,” she says.



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