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July 24, 2008

Cropwatch Five Years on

Part 1. Threatened Natural Aromatic Species

Cropwatch came into being around 2003-2004 in order to directly address concerns about the over-exploitation of natural aromatic ingredients, and their over-regulation by officials prone to the excessive influences of lobbyists from the pharmaceutical & chemical industries, from toxicologists & dermatologists, and, as we have learned to our considerable dismay, from various environmental groups. At present Cropwatch remains independent & non-financed, but with a level of popular support which we believe is (conservatively) over twenty times that of any industry-financed organisation. In order to summarise progress over the past 5 years or so of Cropwatch’s activities, we have divided the reporting into two parts: this part reporting on threatened natural aromatic species, and the second (in preparation) looking at the non-transparent world surrounding the over-regulation of our natural aromatic materials.

Threatened species

Since the essential oils industry/aroma trade has generally been either too shy to come clean about its use of commodities from threatened species, or is actually in denial about it, Cropwatch decided to write an article on the subject for the Endangered Species Update magazine in 2003 (see http://www.cropwatch.org/unethical.htm). This was well-received at the time, and article reviews were featured in leading trade magazines such as Soap, Perfumery & Cosmetics. Further work challenging individual companies who sell or use commodities from rare or threatened species has been on-going since 2003, with some limited measure of success, but when challenged these companies invariably fake surprise, become hostile or defensive, or plead ignorance.

Our major work in this area is the “Update on threatened aromatic plants used in the aroma & cosmetic industries” now in its corrected, expanded and updated 5th revision (93pp), and Cropwatch has the IUCN’s express permission to quote the Red List Status of the individual aromatic species identified. This 5th version includes an extended section on natural product status, & a revision of the alphabetical data-base of threatened species, including rosewood oil (see below for URL). Most of the points we need to make at this juncture are contained within this document. In the introductory lead-in, we quote Bobbi Low (2004) from the periodical Threatened Species: “Many problems in managing and protecting endangered species arise not from our ignorance of the species’ ecology, but from human conflicts of interest”.

Nevertheless, to counter any claims of ignorance, and also attempting to cover “human conflicts of interest”, Cropwatch decided to make collected information about threatened species available on its website in the wider public interest. To this end we have constructed an on-going series of periodically updated articles and data-bases, which either provide information on the subject, or point to where it can be found. Topics cover so far can be listed out as follows:

Extensive bibliography on agarwood (1st revision 2008: 35pp): http://www.cropwatch.org/agarbib2008.pdf

Agarwood files – chemistry, botany, microbiology etc. (2004) at: http://www.cropwatch.org/agarwood.htm

Extensive sandalwood bibliography (4th revision 2008: 67pp): http://www.cropwatch.org/santalum.pdf

Ambergris article (2005) at: http://www.cropwatch.org/ambergris.htm and (2006): http://www.cropwatch.org/ambergrisupdate.htm

A short note on the ecological status of Cedarwood Atlas (2004): http://www.cropwatch.org/cedarwood.htm

Update on threatened aromatic plants used in the aroma & cosmetic industries (5th revision 2008: 93pp): http://www.cropwatch.org/v105.pdf

Exploited trees: some brief sketches (2006): http://www.cropwatch.org/cropwatch13.htm

Chinese medicine consumes threatened species (2005): http://www.cropwatch.org/tigers.htm

Rosewood sustainability (2004): http://www.cropwatch.org/cropwatch6.htm

Australian sandalwood oil: a tale of spin & hype? (2004): http://www.cropwatch.org/cropwatch2.htm

Documents in preparation include ‘Rosewood oil – the real story’ and ‘Misguided attacks on alternative medicine’ which is intended to include the still unfolding gynecomastia - lavender oil - tea tree oil situation. We are also in the process of preparing a ‘Threatened species in the natural drug trade’ data-base, although this will be a long task. We are always grateful for contributions, corrections or suggestions for any of these items, most of which are-, or intended as-, continuously upgraded living documents.

Sections on sandalwood & agarwood in the “Update on threatened aromatic plants….” particularly, go hand-in-hand with the extensive sandalwood & agarwood bibliographies listed above. You should be able to make your own minds up from some of this data about the claimed sustainability of commodities from certain species, and to learn the identities of some of the companies who are using these commodities.


Another topic that the aroma industry really doesn’t want to talk about is the widespread practice of the adulteration of essential oils and aromatic materials. Cropwatch presented (a subsequently much-plagiarised) account of this practice slightly updated at http://www.cropwatch.org/adulterationupdate08.pdf. Whenever natural aromatic commodities go short – as lemon oil is at present, due to widespread global crop failures – the natural ingredient buyer can particularly expect an increased risk of buying substandard, adulterated or blended material. The failure of the IFRA-RIFM-REXPAN hierarchy to have ever investigated the health & safety aspects of adulterated fragrance ingredients is shameful, and clearly illustrates the limitations & no-go areas for trade-funded, non-independent safety organisations. Unfortunately, the hapless regulators of the profession are almost totally dependent on organisations such as these for direction & technical information. But you would all know that already…….

Tony Burfield

Co-founder Cropwatch

Posted by Tony Burfield on July 24, 2008 in Ecological/Cultural Sustainability, Essential Oils/Plant Extractions, Oil Crops, Regulatory Issues | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Essential Oils and Poison Center Reports

A note in the previous post referenced data about poison center reports for essential oils.  This piqued my curiosity, so I read the article in the New York Times and then looked up the original data to gain some perspective.

The NYT article turns out to be an opinion piece based on a book that appears to be part of Big Pharma's attack on natural supplements and natural products. The linked version is rife with corrections that had to be made after publication. The original article was trying to make the case that there were all sorts of "poisonings" that took place from vitamins, supplements, and natural products, and that this was a very bad thing. The corrections begrudgingly pointed out that the data were based on calls to poison centers, and were really about "exposures" and not about actual "poisonings." And they still didn't do a good job of putting it all in a real perspective, failing to mention that half of all poison reports are about pharmaceuticals.

I'm going to focus here on essential oils, which after all are the subject of this blog. Table 22 from the report lists the essential oils (I've omitted details on age, reason, and minor outcomes--look at the full report for that):

Essential oils No. of Exposures Adverse
Treated in Health Care Facility Outcome Major/Death
Clove oil 446 22 101 0/0
Cinnamon oil 599 29 48 0/0
Eucalyptus oil 522 5 99 3/0
Pennyroyal oil 36 5 14 0/0
Tea tree oil 951 35 151 2/0
Other/unknown 4728 53 406 1/0
Category total 7282 149 819 6/0

Let's put that in perspective--this is out of 2,765,665 total exposures. There were only 6 cases with major outcome and no deaths. In the overall, approximately half of exposures (51%) were for pharmaceuticals, and 49% were non-pharmaceuticals. Essential oil exposures were about .0000263% of all the exposures.  Or for more perspective, there were 17,725 exposures to Soap, with 329 adverse reactions, 5 major outcomes, and no deaths. Perfume got 16,495 exposures, and there was actually 1 death.

The vast majority of EO exposures were to children under the age of six (5422 or 75%) with a smaller number (537) to older children and 1239 to adults. There is a good reason why we put a warning on the bottles about keeping out of reach of children, but I guess some people don't heed it.

The EO's broken out in the listing are probably the most common ones available and are sold in most pharmacies for a variety of uses. It would be unfair to assume that they are the most dangerous.

Just for drill, I looked at the 2006 annual report and it had similar data, with the total number of EO exposures rising slightly to 7377.

The problem with these data is that they are only the exposures actually reported, and in order to calculate the true risk we need to know the number of users. Ideally it would be good to be able to refer to the risk per 1000 users and compare it to other substances similarly. However, since we can only estimate the number of users, and there are no data here, we are just guessing.

The comparison to soap may be useful.  Everyone (well, almost) uses soap and has it available where it can probably be reached by children. If essential oils are just as safe as soap, then the roughly double exposure would suggest that half of people have essential oils in their home.  Since that probably isn't true, then we can assume that essential oils are less safe than soap.

The main thing we can conclude from these data is that we should keep essential oils out of the reach of children, and that they haven't caused any deaths.

Posted by Rob on July 24, 2008 in Essential Oils/Plant Extractions, Safety/Toxicity | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

July 22, 2008

Notes and News

  • Organic Monitor reports that there is an increase in the acreage of organic citrus groves in Florida. They focus on juice, but this should lead to better availability of organic citrus oils. 
  • The C.A.M. Report has resurrected the Lavender/Tea Tree Gynecomastia issue again, by reposting an old post from 2007 without updating it to include information about challenges to the original research. 
  • In the same post the C.A.M. report mentioned (without citation) a report that in 2005 essential oils were linked to 7,282 reports to poison control centers. UPDATE: JR forwarded the citation in a comment. He reported on this in the C.A.M. Report here. The article cited was here. The original source (PDF) of the data was the 2005 report of the American Association of Poison Control Centers.
  • A new blog on food and local agriculture has been added to our Agriculture Horticulture link roll: La Vida Locavore.  Worth checking out if you like food.

Posted by Rob on July 22, 2008 in Essential Oils/Plant Extractions, Lavender/Tea Tree/Gynecomastia, Notes and News, Weblogs | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

July 15, 2008

The Natural discussion continues

The Society of Cosmetic Chemists has weighed in on the question of "natural" at its annual scientific seminar last month in Orlando, according to a recent Happi article entitled "It's Not Natural..." The article discusses both natural and organic definitions, most of which we have mentioned here in previous posts.

Speakers at the conference pointed out that there are six major organizations trying to define natural, which is not exactly true; five them are working on organic standards and only one (NPA) has even dealt with the term "natural" in their standard. The NIRC and the IANPP weren't even mentioned, but they aren't major organizations so I supposed they don't count.

Issues other than standards, but related to natural/organic manufacturing including green chemistry and sustainable packaging.  There was a review of regulatory issues, pointing out that there is no general consensus on the meaning of "natural" and that because the FDA has no definition, it may be up to the Feceral Trade Commission (FTC) might resolve the issue based on whether claims made are "clear and definitive".

What is clear at present is that the whole discussion of natural is not definitive, as pointed out at the seminar, and as pointed out on this blog.

Posted by Rob on July 15, 2008 in Regulatory Issues, Standards | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

July 11, 2008

FDA enters debate on Natural

We've blogged before on the meaning of "natural" when applied to skin and body products, discussing in particular the definitions put forth by the Natural Products Association (NPA) and the Natural Ingredients Resource Center (NIRC).  Now the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) has reversed itself in a ruling on high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) and ruled that it can be considered "natural" under certain manufacturing processes, according to an article in FoodNavigator-USA, a food industry publication. The ruling came in a letter from the FDA to the Corn Refiner's Association (CRA).

It appears that the ruling is based on technicality having to do with the production process for HFCS. Even though the process uses a synthetic fixing agent, it supposedly doesn't come into contact with the HFCS, so that it is acceptable as "natural".  As the article points out, however, the Sugar industry as well as other consumer groups argue that HFCS isn't natural because

its chemical bonds are broken and rearranged in the manufacturing process.

What this really points out is that there isn't yet a good standard definition for what is "Natural".  According to the FDA letter, it makes decisions on a case-by-case basis.

A search of the FDA website reveals this interesting statement:

The term "natural" has not been defined in FDA's law (the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act) or in FDA's regulations.

A review of the Google Results for "FDA natural" reveals a number of recent "natural" issues with the FDA, including in addition to HFCS the issues of Stevia, various "natural" cures for cancer and other diseases, some paranoia about health freedom, and the discussion of whether they will define "natural." This blog post from April 2008 is a good discussion of some of the issues, although it is now outdated by the new FDA ruling.

According to SourceWatch, a website that tracks "the names behind the news" the CRA has spent $20-30 million on a public relations and advertising campaign in support of HFCS.

The FDA now seems to have thrown in its lot with the CRA.  I'm sure we haven't heard the last of it.

Posted by Rob on July 11, 2008 in Regulatory Issues, Standards | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack