Lavender oil may bring new health warning in Europe, adding to French farmers’ concerns


Alain Abanel has a new concern on top of the wildfires, high energy costs and unreliable supply chains plaguing his part of southeastern France. He fears that the oil extracted from the lavender he grows may soon be labeled with a skull and crossbones in Europe.

Mr Aubanel is president of a farmers’ union representing 2,000 lavender growers in the south of France, whose product turns hectares of land into a cloudy purple in the summer. It’s a company he says would be under threat if the European Union pushes ahead with proposed changes that would label lavender oil, widely used to calm nerves and boost low mood, as a dangerous substance.

Lavender farmers have been rioting since news of impending regulatory changes broke out last year. In the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes and Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur regions of southeastern France, farmers have organized petitions, plastered signs on their tractors and staged protests in lavender fields, drawing the attention of national politicians.

“Lavender producers have big problems. The impact of the regulations could kill them,” said Mr Aubanel, a third-generation lavender farmer in the mountains south of Grenoble.

“It is the only crop that farmers in dry mountain areas can use to make a living from their work,” says grower Alain Abanel.

The European Commission, the executive branch of the EU, is adopting new rules to regulate substances that can be harmful to humans. One such substance is lavender oil, which some studies show disrupts hormone patterns and contains small amounts of carcinogens.

The controversy surrounding French lavender shows the delicate balancing act of regulation. The EU and scientists say the rules will protect the planet and the public, but national governments and businesses fear they will harm the economy and consumers.

Mr Aubanel, who called the planned changes discriminatory, has a simple message for the committee: “Bring back common sense and scientific information.”

Small-scale production of lavender oil is the lifeline for many in Provence, a region of France popular with tourists, along the Mediterranean. In this area, the sector directly and indirectly employs 26,000 people, including 1,700 farmers, according to Jean-Michel Arnaud, a senator from the region who supports the lavender farmers.

According to the Observatory of Economic Complexity, a data project from the MIT Media Lab, exports of the oils last year brought in $345 million, making it the region’s fifth largest export. According to the local Ministry of Agriculture, nearly 15,000 hectares of crops were harvested in 2020 that were used to make essential oils in the Drôme department, home to Mr Aubanel’s farm.

Lavender essential oil is obtained by steam distillation, where oils are collected on the water surface that remains after the steam has cooled.

Producing lavender oil is labor intensive: the flowers are picked, dried and sent to a distillery to extract the oil. An acre of lavender produces an average of about 13 pounds of essential oil, according to the French Ministry of Agriculture.

“It is the only crop that farmers in arid mountain areas can make a living from,” said Mr. abanel.

Many lavender farmers have been selling at a loss for several years now, as overproduction has pushed prices down. Wildfires destroyed dozens of acres of lavender in June. “Many producers are financially and psychologically exhausted and about to leave” [their] jobs because it is no longer possible to make a profit, said Mr. abanel.

The new rules are being considered as part of a review of EU chemicals regulations. The goal is to create a “toxic-free environment” by tightening regulations for hazardous chemicals and driving innovation for sustainable alternatives. Essential oils can be labeled as endocrine disruptors, which disrupt the body’s normal hormone patterns.

“This initiative will help achieve a legitimate higher level of protection for citizens and the environment from hazardous chemicals,” said a spokeswoman for the commission.

The revisions are expected in the second half of this year, she added.

Existing pictograms on lavender oil packaging warn that the product can be fatal if swallowed or enters the respiratory tract. The oil can also cause skin irritation or an allergic skin reaction and is toxic to aquatic organisms, according to the European Chemicals Agency.

New research suggests there may be more harmful effects, with one study linking lavender oil to early puberty in girls and another to abnormal breast growth in young boys. Contact with even a small amount of an endocrine disruptor can disrupt homeostasis, the body’s self-regulating process to maintain internal stability, scientists say.

“The moment you deviate from homeostasis, you do damage one way, and if you keep doing that, it has consequences,” said Josef Köhrle, an endocrinologist at Charité-Berlin University of Medicine and a member of the European Society of Medicine. endocrinology.

Essential oils can be labeled as endocrine disruptors, which affect the body’s normal hormone patterns.

The European Federation of Essential Oils, a trade group, disputes the classification of endocrine disruptors, stating that new hazard classes should be based on “solid scientific criteria”. Stricter requirements would disproportionately affect smaller companies that cannot afford additional costs, the group said.

Chemical manufacturers say the additional requirements will drive up production costs that will be passed on to consumers.

“Dealing with the regulations is far too complicated, too difficult to handle and handle correctly,” said Michael Hagel, a chemist and head of the department of occupational safety and environmental protection at Carl Roth GmbH + Co. KG, a German chemical company. production company.

Adding drops of lavender oil to a warm bath “has no effect on your body,” he said.

The European Commission spokeswoman said she was aware of criticism from essential oil producers and was taking into account the socio-economic impact of the revisions.

The village of Chamaloc, where the farm and distillery of Alain Aubanel are located.

Concerned about the potential impact on his region, Mr Arnaud, the senator from Provence, submitted a draft resolution to the French Senate’s European Affairs Committee to protect essential oils from “collateral damage” from the regulatory changes. The motion, passed in July, calls for additional scientific studies on the oils, which Mr Arnaud called “the soul of Provence.”

“Lavender essential oils have been around since ancient Rome and have never caused health problems for humans as long as their use is reasonable,” said Mr Arnaud. He estimated that 70% of lavender production in Provence could be at risk due to additional costs incurred by small farmers.

In a worst-case scenario, synthetic lavender derived from crude oil would overtake sales of natural oils, Mr Arnaud said.

Write to Lucy Papachristou at lucy.papachristou@wsj.com

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