Thursday, April 13, 2006

Soft Drinks - Benzene Risks Heat Up

How do you dramatically increase the benzene content in certain soft drinks?

Just add increased heat and light for a short period of time, says former industry scientist, and benzene levels "could dramatically increase to beyond the WHO 10 parts per billion water standard."

Both the FDA and the UK's Food Standards Agency, said they suspected benzene was being formed by two common ingredients "sodium benzoate and ascorbic acid" reacting together in the drinks, a fact known for 15 years by the FDA and US soft drinks association, revealed by internal FDA memos.

Glen Lawrence, a scientist who helped the FDA with testing back in 1990, also published a journal article in 1993 detailing how sodium benzoate could break down to form benzene in drinks also containing ascorbic acid (Vitamin C).

Both the FSA and the FDA say the levels found in drinks to date should not pose an immediate health risk, although 4 drinks were recently recalled in the UK owing to the discovery of high levels of benzene contamination.

However one scientist said testing drinks after exposure to heat and light is now crucial.

"When those 38 drinks that [the UK Food Standards Agency] tested positive for benzene are subjected to even short periods of heat and light, they could dramatically increase to beyond the WHO 10 parts per billion water standard."

"Heat is a major factor," according to Mike Redman, an American Beverage Association scientist who also represented the industry in meetings with the FDA on benzene back in 1990/1991.

Britain's Food Standards Agency has not tested soft drinks for benzene after heat exposure; although a European Commission spokesperson said new guidelines on benzene testing, now being drawn up by the soft drinks industry, were likely to include "predictive testing to simulate storage".

Industry testing on soft drinks 15 years ago is thought to have found that temperatures of 30°C and exposure to UV light for several hours were enough to more than triple benzene residues in some drinks.

The tests were designed to simulate the worst case scenario, and "were not necessarily representative of what the consumer was receiving", according to Greg Diachenko, a scientist with the US Food and Drug Administration, who also took part in negotiations with soft drinks makers over benzene in 1990 and 1991.

Benzene, a cancer-causing chemical linked to leukemia, can form naturally and is found in forest fires, gasoline and cigarette smoke. It's widely used in industrial production to make plastics, rubber, detergents, drugs and pesticides.

Benzene can also form in soft drinks made with Vitamin C and sodium or potassium benzoate. Heat, light and shelf life can affect whether benzene will form, according to FDA.

While scientists and doctors disagree on how hazardous benzene is to human health, the Environmental Protection Agency requires public notification and alternative water supply for drinking water contaminated with levels of 5 ppb. Even "relatively short periods" of exposure at that level can "potentially cause … temporary nervous system disorders, immune system depression [and] anemia," according to the agency. A lifetime of exposure, says the EPA, can cause "chromosome aberrations [and] cancer."

Even the latest round of tests would not have been conducted if it weren't for documents posted on the internet late last year by an industry whistleblower named Larry Alibrandi, according to one article on AlertNet. Those papers concern an undisclosed study at Cadbury-Schweppes in 1990 called Project Denver, which found that certain soft drinks, particularly diet orange-flavored sodas, had the tendency to form benzene when exposed to heat and light.

According to AlertNet, judging from their ingredients, dozens of products now on the shelves could potentially have the same problem, including such popular brands as Sunny Delight, flavored Diet Pepsi and Fanta Orange. (The Environmental Working Group has posted a partial list of possibly risky products -- particularly risky for children. Chances are high you will recognize some of the brands indicated.)

The question is, how many soft drink consumers have occassionally left their soft drink sitting in the sun on a hot summer day -- before eventually drinking it? How many people have left their case of pop sitting in the sun at camp? Are any of the public health/food saftey authorities even considering what happens to those soft drinks AFTER they leave the store shelves?

And the BIG QUESTION: Is there a need for further public education on benzene risks relating to soft drinks?

Heat tests key for benzene in soft drinks
UK benzene in soft drinks recall
The benzene trail
Hard Times for Soft Drinks
Benzene Levels in Soft Drinks Above Limit
Environmental Working Group - avoid any amount of benzene in drinks intended for children