August 31, 2007

Canada declares neem toothpaste unsafe

Canada has asked people to stop using the Indian-made Neem Active toothpaste with calcium because it contains dangerous levels of a poisonous chemical and harmful bacteria.

Manufactured by Calcutta Chemical Co. Ltd, the toothpaste is sold in small Canadian grocery stores though it has not yet not approved for sale in Canada.

The Canadian government has directed shops to take the toothpaste off the shelves. Consumers of the brand have been asked to discontinue use immediately and ensure the toothpaste remains out of the reach of children. People have also been asked to return the product to the store they bought it from.

Officials at Calcutta Chemicals, which was renamed Henkel India after a merger with Henkel SPIC India in 2004, say they are surprised by the findings.

“The company is 90 years old and Margo and Neem Active are its flagship brands. They have been in the Indian market for decades and we have never had any complaints of toxicity,” said Partho Banerjee of Henkel India.

This new Canadian directive follows an earlier warning issued last month that found unacceptable levels of diethylene glycol (DEG). This toxic organic compound is an industrial solvent and a prime ingredient in some antifreeze.

Swallowing DEG causes nausea, abdominal pain, dizziness, urinary problems, kidney failure, breathing problems, lethargy, convulsions, coma and death.

“Toothpaste is not meant to be swallowed, but young children often ingest it. Potential health risks from chronic exposure to DEG are a particular concern in children, the elderly and people with kidney or liver disease,” says the warning.

Health experts in India say DEG is not a component or derivative of Neem, which has proven anti-microbacterial properties. “DEG has no business being found in toothpaste and if it was, it is probably a manufacturing defect. Anti-freeze or DEG poisoning is very rare in India because the chemical is not used here, unlike in cold countries where it used extensively to defrost cars,” said D J N Pande, former head of medicine, All India Institute of Medical Sciences and currently a consultant with Sitaram Bhartia Institute.

Further tests also found Neem Active with Calcium contained high levels of harmful bacteria that can cause fever, urinary tract infection, and gastrointestinal symptoms such as vomiting, diarrhoea and abdominal pain. “This poses additional significant health risks, especially to children and individuals with compromised immune systems,” warned Health Canada, a Canadian federal government’s health department.

Children and vulnerable populations such as the elderly, hospitalised patients and people with compromised immune systems are more sensitive to the harmful effects of DEG. “Severe vomiting and diarrhoea could lead to potentially life-threatening dehydration,” said the warning.

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