FDA finds benzene in soft drinks

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BY DAVID GOLDSTEIN

Knight Ridder Newspapers

WASHINGTON- When small amounts of benzene, a known cancer-causing chemical, were found in some soft drinks 16 years ago, the Food and Drug Administration never told the public.

That’s because the beverage industry told the government it would handle the problem and the FDA thought the problem was solved.

A decade and a half later, benzene has turned up again. The FDA has found levels in some soft drinks higher than what it found in 1990, and two to four times higher than what’s considered safe for drinking water.

Both the FDA and the beverage industry said the amounts were small and that the problem didn’t appear to be widespread.

“People shouldn’t overreact,” said Kevin Keane, a spokesman for the American Beverage Association. “It’s a very small number of products and not major brands.”

“The issue here is not something that should cause anyone alarm or terrific concern,” said George Pauli, a top food safety expert at the FDA, “but if there’s something that can be reduced, we want to reduce it.”

Neither Keane nor Pauli would identify the drinks being tested because the investigation is still under way.

Pauli said that people ingest more benzene by breathing than they would if they drank a can of soda containing the chemical. Small amounts of the chemical also are naturally present in some foods such as fruits, vegetables and dairy products.

Still, Pauli added, “You want to avoid it in any degree you can.”

Of the 60 or so varieties of sodas, sports drinks, juice drinks and bottled waters that the FDA has tested so far, benzene levels have ranged from two and three parts per billion to more than 10-20 parts per billion.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s safety standard for benzene in drinking water is five parts per billion. If it exceeds that, authorities are required to notify the public.

Keane said it was “tough to compare” the safety standard for water with soft drinks because the water rule is based on the fact that people drink more water each day.

Benzene is an industrial chemical that’s found in tobacco smoke, car exhaust and vapors from household products such as paint, detergents and furniture wax. Long-term exposure can cause leukemia and other cancers of the blood, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Benzene can show up in soft drinks when two common ingredients react: ascorbic acid, otherwise known as vitamin C, and either sodium benzoate or potassium benzoate. Both are preservatives used to prevent the growth of bacteria.

But the presence of these chemicals doesn’t necessarily produce benzene.

“It’s not as simple as looking at the label, and if you see those two, there will be problems,” Keane said.

Pauli said that a catalyst such as temperature or light is needed to trigger the formation of benzene. That’s what scientists suspect occurred in 1990 when authorities found benzene in products made by Cadbury Schweppes and Koala Springs, an Australian beverage company.

But a health safety watchdog organization said the FDA should inform the public, particularly since so many soft drinks are marketed to children.

“Most people would prefer there are no known human carcinogens in what they drink,” said Jane Houlihan, vice president for research at the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit, nonpartisan scientific research group that studies toxic chemicals. “This is a case where industry agreed to get it out of the products, and all the evidence says they didn’t.”

Soft drink manufacturers PepsiCo and Coca-Cola declined to comment and referred calls to the American Beverage Association.

When benzene first turned up 16 years ago, FDA officials met with representatives of the beverage industry who “expressed their concern about the presence of benzene traces in their products and the potential for adverse publicity associated with this problem,” according to an internal FDA memo from December 1990.

Keane said the industry told the FDA that it was reformulating its products to alleviate the problem. Adding sugar, for instance, or replacing the vitamin C, can inhibit the chemical reaction that produces benzene, Pauli said.

An FDA official who asked not to be identified said that the agency didn’t inform the public about the benzene problem 16 years ago because it didn’t consider it a public health concern since the levels were low and the companies were reformulating.

He said the FDA conducted follow-up testing in the early 1990s, but not since because “we thought the problem was gone and over. Then it resurfaced.”

The current investigation began when an activist concerned about soft drink machines in schools tried to get the FDA interested in the issue. He then sent lab results showing some soft drinks with higher-than-normal benzene levels.

“Our first reaction was, `Yes, we looked at this in 1990 and essentially there was nothing there,'” Pauli said. “Then he came up with some numbers and we said, `That’s not what we came up with back then. We have to go back and look.'”

Asked why the problem would resurface 16 years later, Keane said the industry took the necessary steps at the time, but it’s possible some manufacturers just didn’t know.

“It’s a very fast-growing industry, both in terms of companies and new brands, so a lot has changed in the last 16 years,” he said.

Food safety authorities in Great Britain and Australia also are testing soft drinks for benzene.

About Bob McCauley

Bob McCauley, ND (Robert F., Jr.) was raised in Lansing, Michigan and attended Michigan State University (BA, 1980 in Journalism). He is a naturopathic doctor, Master Herbalist and a Certified Nutritional Consultant. He has traveled extensively, both domestically and abroad, visiting over 32 countries. He published Confessions of a Body Builder: Rejuvenating the Body with Spirulina, Chlorella, Raw Foods and Ionized Water (2000), Achieving Great Health (2005), The Miraculous Properties of Ionized Water, (2006) which is the only book on the market that exclusively addresses Ionized Water, Twelve (Fiction, 2007) and Honoring the Temple of God (2008). He considers himself a Naturalist, meaning he pursues health in the most natural way possible. He studies and promotes nature as the only way to true health. From 2002-2004 he hosted the radio program Achieving Great Health, which was heard by thousands of people each day. His guests included some of the most well-known and respected names in the natural health world. With the help of his father, Dr. Robert F. McCauley, Sr. (Doctorate in Environmental Engineering, MIT, 1953) they started Spartan Water Company in 1992, which sold vended water machines in supermarkets. Robert Jr. founded Spartan Enterprises, Inc. in 1993. He is a Certified Water Technician with the State of Michigan. He is also a Type II Public Water Supply Specialist and has the certifications of S-5 and D-5. The McCauley family has a long history in the water industry. Bob's father pioneered environmental issues regarding ground water and drinking water quality. He received his Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1953 for his thesis on removing radioactive strontium from water. He earned his doctorate in Environmental Engineering in less than 2 years, one of the shortest doctoral studies in the history of MIT. He taught civil, sanitary and environmental engineering at Michigan State University for 18 years before retiring to run Wolverine Engineers & Surveyors of Mason, Michigan, for 17 years. His reputation throughout Michigan as a water quality expert was legendary. Bob worked for his father's company for 12 years learning the water business, which dealt primarily with municipalities, including water quality and sanitary sewer issues. After apprenticing with his father, Bob moved on to the bottled water business. He established greater Michigan's biggest selling bottled water: Michigan Mineral – Premium Natural Water. He was introduced to Ionized Water in 1995 and has done more to promote Ionized Water than anyone else in the industry. Bob often lectures and offers seminars on his Seven Component Natural Health Protocol . Bob is a Certified Nutritional Consultant and a Certified Master Herbalist. He is also a 3rd Degree Black Belt and Certified Instructor of Songahm Taekwondo (American Taekwondo Association).
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