Tuesday, March 07, 2006

I'll have a soda, hold the benzene

Look on the ingredients label of a lot of soft drinks and you'll find sodium benzoate (a preservative) and ascorbic acid (vitamin C). Sodium benzoate is limited to .1% because it's . . . how to say this? . . . poisonous. But not at these levels, we are assured.

Unless paired with ascorbic acid and then it produces benzene, a known cause of blood cancers like leukemia, lymphoma and multiple myeloma in humans.

Didn't know benzene was produced in sodas? Apparently not all soft drink makers did either. But some did and so did the US FDA -- 15 years ago. They just forgot to "get the word out."
One FDA chemist, who was also at the meetings with industry back then, told BeverageDaily.com the industry had agreed to “get the word out and reformulate”. No public announcement was, therefore, ever made.


Both an FDA chemist and the US soft drinks association have admitted it was entirely possible that some soft drinks firms might not know of the potential for sodium benzoate and ascorbic acid to cause benzene formation in drinks.

Benzene is listed as a known carcinogen by the FDA itself. Yet, the agency has set no maximum limit for benzene in soft drinks and only re-opened its investigation of the issue after a concerned industry whistleblower had paid for independent testing.

Industry and regulatory authorities have assured there is no immediate risk to consumers' health from drinks containing benzene at the levels found to date.

But, BeverageDaily has discovered the reaction between ascorbic acid and sodium benzoate was causing enough benzene in drinks in 1990 for companies to change their formulas. And, there is uncertainty over how much a drink's exposure to heat can exacerbate the problem. (Chris Mercer of BeverageDaily.com via Foodnavigator)
The FDA cover-up was in 1990 (Bush the elder) but is now having international repurcussions. European authorities say they had no idea benzoate could break down into benzene (although it was in the open scientific literature in 1993). Germany, Belgium, Denmark and the UK all said they were unaware of the presence of benzene in soft drinks, as did the European Commission in a statement to BeverageDaily.com. While most of these countries and the US have standards for benzene in drinking water, they don't have standards for benzene soft drinks. I guess they all figured when you put sugar, dye, preservatives and artificial flavors in that same water you don't have to worry about benzene anymore. Go figure. The drinking water standard for benzene in the UK is 1 part per billion and in the US it is 5 parts per billion because apparently Americans are five times as resistant to carcinogens as residents of the British Isles (or maybe the US government is five times more sensitive to money).

No one knows how long there has been benzene in soft drinks. A long time, probably. And there are a lot more soft drinks now then there used to be. The BeverageDaily.com story says more than 1500 soft drinks containing benzoate and ascorbic acid have been launched in Europe, the US and Latin America since January 2002.

I don't want to make too much of this story, however. It's frightfully easy to hurt the feelings of the soft drink makers. I want to be kind to them, like the FDA:
An internal FDA memo from December 1990 tells of how soft drinks firms “expressed concern about the presence of benzene traces in their products and the potential for adverse publicity associated with this problem”.
Such sensitive souls. Be gentle with them. Just don't drink the (sugar) water.