Suzanne Havala Hobbs , Correspondent
Benzene is in some soft drinks and other beverages sold in the United States , many of them consumed regularly by children.
That simple statement alone should be enough to prompt swift and serious action by the federal government.
Drinks containing as much as 27 times the federal limit for benzene in drinking water have been found on supermarket shelves, according to the most recent government data publicly available — from the Food and Drug Administration’s Total Diet Study, which examined contaminant levels in beverages sold between 1995 and 2001.
How can that be?
As I wrote last month, the FDA learned nearly 15 years ago that two ingredients — ascorbic acid and sodium benzoate or potassium benzoate — can interact in products and form benzene, a carcinogen. Certain conditions — heat and light — can accelerate benzene production in drinks.
In the early 1990s, after first learning of this problem, FDA entrusted industry to take voluntary steps to reduce the benzene content of beverages. No public announcement was made.
I spoke last week with Mike Redman, vice president for scientific, technical and regulatory affairs for the American Beverage Association. Redman also worked as a soft drink industry representative in the early 1990s and discussed the issue of benzene contamination with FDA officials then.
Redman said that back then FDA did not dictate specific steps for reducing benzene in drinks.
“The agreement was, because FDA is not product formulators, either, and they’ll be the first to tell you that, that they left that up to the industry to determine the best ways for the individual products to lower those benzene levels,” Redman said.
Whatever the agreement was between FDA and the soft drink industry, the problem hasn’t been fixed.
Recent independent laboratory tests have found benzene in soft drinks at levels higher than 5 parts per billion, the maximum level allowed by the Environmental Protection Agency in drinking water.
As a result, FDA has begun testing soft drinks again for benzene. However, the agency isn’t releasing the data to the public.
“To release all the data now could be confusing,” Laura Tarantino, the FDA’s director of food additive safety, told the Associated Press. “It’s not only not good for companies; it’s not particularly good for consumers. It doesn’t give them any useful information. One of the misperceptions is that anytime you see ascorbic acid and benzoate, you’re going to automatically have high levels of benzene, and that just isn’t so.”
It may certainly be true that not all drinks containing the combination of ascorbic acid and benzoates also contain benzene. But we do know now that some of them do — and at levels that would require sharp warnings if it were in your drinking water.
In our modern, industrialized world it may be impossible to avoid all exposures to contaminants such as benzene. The biggest benzene exposures for most people come when filling up a gas tank or driving in heavy traffic.
But that doesn’t excuse the presence of a toxic, cancer-causing substance in a manufactured product that’s entirely optional in our diets.
Without attention to this problem from the media and our elected representatives, FDA and the soft drink industry are likely to reach another ineffective and soon-to-be-neglected gentlemen’s agreements.
In which case, consider this column your warning label.