TCS Daily

The Bogus Benzene Scare

By John Luik - June 1, 2006 12:00 AM

Another day, another exaggerated scare story about the dangers of soft drinks.

If it weren't enough that the fat police have targeted fizzy drinks in their crusade to slenderize the world, now Coca-Cola and Cadbury-Schweppes have been added to a Florida suit already involving Pepsi, Kraft Foods, Ocean Spray Cranberries, Polar Beverages and In zone Brands. The suit alleges that the benzene in their drink products exceeds the one part per billion standard established in Florida* -- a standard that is one fifth the federal level set for US drinking water -- and this constitutes a carcinogenic hazard.Benzene at certain levels is associated with leukemia in humans.

As a matter of fact, test results by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have found that five of 100 soft drinks tested -- one for each company sued -- did exceed the water benzene limits. But mostly ignored by the lawsuit and the scare stories is that the testing procedures used exaggerate the benzene in sodas and that the safety limit for water is set far below levels where benzene causes harm.

That matters little to the Environmental Working Group, which initiated fears about soda pop and various other fruit drinks containing benzene.

In a letter to the FDA in February, the EWG asked the agency to issue a warning that soft drinks may contain benzene, claiming that it was a "clear health threat." Knowing full well that the agency was in the process of completing tests on soft drinks, the EWG also then swaggered about demanding the agency release the results of any tests that it had performed to determine whether benzene was present in soft drinks. It in addition made the outrageous claim that the agency had suppressed information about the health risks of benzene.

The claims are similar to those of Ross Getman, a Syracuse, NY, lawyer representing parents in suits to remove soda from schools, in a newspaper column in which he wrote that the FDA had gone along with industry back in the 1990s to keep the presence of benzene in soft drinks from the public.**

The release of the FDA's completed survey has only turned up the EWG's volume.

"FDA's test results confirm that there is a serious problem with benzene in soda and juices," said Richard Wiles, senior vice president at Environmental Working Group. "There is no excuse for deliberately putting chemicals that form high levels of potent cancer-causing benzene in popular drinks. This is a wake-up call for the beverage industry. It is time to get benzene-forming ingredients out of sodas and juices."

One is minded to suggest to Wiles that he get a grip before leaping off into hyperbole. And meanwhile, before the scared-of-soda crowd panics you into throwing out your pop, you might want to inoculate yourself with a few actual facts about benzene and benzene in soft drinks.

First of all -- and this may sound scary, but it isn't -- benzene is ubiquitous. Not only is it a chemical solvent and gasoline additive ranked among the top 20 chemicals in terms of use in the United States, benzene also forms from natural processes such as forest fires, and is routinely found in both rural and urban air. For example, ambient air levels of benzene have been found at 182 ppb (parts per billion) in Los Angeles and at 179 ppb in London. And most importantly, it is also found in many foods such as meats, eggs and bananas.

Our knowledge about the effects of benzene on humans come from epidemiological studies of workers exposed to it in industries such as rubber, oil and shoe manufacturing, as well as from animal studies. The workers who have shown higher risks of leukemia were exposed to levels of benzene in parts per million, not the parts per billion found in a few soft drinks. Despite EWG and the lawsuit's claims about benzene in soda being a "clear health threat," no human studies have shown benzene as causing cancer at the levels found in soda pop.

Indeed to reach the same level of exposure to benzene as those lab animals or industrial workers who suffered health effects, someone would have to consume 10,000 bottles of those soft drinks with benzene them. And as the FDA study showed, they are few. And its study has been confirmed by other food safety agencies. The UK's Food Standards Agency found that more than two-thirds of the samples it tested were not merely below the five parts per billion threshold but had undetectable levels of benzene. Or, to put the risk in perspective, it would take the benzene found in 20 liters of a soft drink that contained benzene -- about what it takes to fill a gasoline tank -- to equal the benzene the average person who lives in a city breathes in a single day.

The benzene found in a few soft drinks has nothing to do with contamination, just as the benzene found in Perrier in 1990 was not caused by contamination. Instead, it is the combination of Vitamin C in some soft drinks (mostly juice-containing drinks), reacting with preservatives -- such as sodium benzoate -- that are used in soft drinks to prevent the development of health threatening bacteria that poses the problem. And mostly that occurs from exposure of cans and bottles to heat in excess of 90 degrees Fahrenheit for a substantial period of time.

Finally, and most importantly, the industry and the FDA -- in opposition to the EWG's outrageous claims -- haven't been colluding to hide a health threat from the public. Instead, they've been cooperating to make soft drinks safer. Though the FDA's handling of the benzene issue has been sometimes less than surefooted, the FDA began the joint research program to understand the causes of benzene formation when the industry first learned of the presence in some products in 1990 and reported it to the FDA. They then moved to reformulate soft drinks to prevent its development. In 1993 the FDA published the results of this research -- results which showed that the benzene levels in soft drinks were not considered a health risk.

In November when the FDA received lab reports showing low levels of benzene in certain soft drinks, it began to collect and test samples of soft drinks. Since November the FDA has analyzed more than 100 soft drinks and other beverages susceptible to benzene contamination. The results of FDA sampling shows that "the vast majority of beverages sampled contain either no detectable benzene or levels below the 5 ppb limit for drinking water, and do not suggest a safety concern."

Of the 100 drinks sampled, five had levels of benzene that exceed the drinking water standard. These were Safeway Select Diet Orange, Crush Pineapple, AquaCal Strawberry Flavored Water Beverage, Crystal Light Sunrise Classic Orange and Giant Light Cranberry Juice Cocktail. Even with these drinks the benzene was found only in a few production batches. And of these, two were within the World Health Organization's standard of 10 ppb for water -- which shows how exacting and safe the U.S. standard is. Nonetheless, in accordance with FDA and industry standards, the products are being reformulated.

As Laura Tarantino, director of the FDA's Office of Food Additive Safety, noted: "This is likely an occasional exposure, it's not a chronic exposure. ... the amount of benzene you are getting in a soda is very, very small compared to what you're being exposed to every day from environmental sources."

So benzene is not present in most soft drinks, in those that it is, the level is not harmful. And the FDA, far from covering up the risks of benzene has, is taking the appropriate steps to test and measure the risk, while the industry is reformulating drinks to ensure they meet the agency's most exacting standard.

And as for the EWG and the trial lawyers, while it is good to have watchdogs to ensure industry and regulators are playing square, their false and shrill alarms will only turn off the public if they ever stumble upon a real threat to the public health.

The author is writing a book about health policy.

* Editor's note: A previous version of this article indicated that the lawsuit concerned violation of the five part per billion federal drinking law standard, rather than the stricter state one ppb standard.

**Editor's note: we have further clarified from a previous version of this article the characterization in Mr. Getman's column of the FDA's and industry's relationship regarding benzene in soft drinks.



Nice article
I agree that this benzene issue is just a "scare" - hopefully the media will move on soon!

Getting Rich --- Again
This is just anither attempt by ******* attorneys (with apologies for the redundancy)to line their pockets. Wouldn't the world be so much better without attorneys? Just think of how much less it would cost us to live without their money-grubbing presence!!! So much of the cost of products --- especially medical products/services --- goes into buying insurance to protect companies/individuals from these unprincipled vultures that is unbelievable what it winds up costing the average consumer.

Now benzene in soda/soft drinks. I can't wait for James Sokolov (Moron at Law) to start his TV commercials:



article mistakenly says earlier benzene incidents did not involve contamination
The article mistakenly says the benzene in drinks due to tainted carbon dioxide in 1990 was not due to contamination when any google search would show it was. In 1990, 162 million bottles of Perrier were recalled and in 1998 52 million cans and bottles of Coca-Cola drinks were recalled due to benzene above 10 ppb.

Probe into fizzy drinks scare, Jun 02 98

In Britain soft-drink companies and the government insisted no health risk was posed by the drinks, which executives said were mildly contaminated from the carbon dioxide used to make them fizzy.

The carbon dioxide originated from a plant in the west of England which distributes gas to a number of cola and soft-drink bottlers, the British Soft Drinks Association said.

The most contaminated bottles had 20 parts of benzene per billion, double the safety levels recommended by the World Health Organisation, the industry group said. Benzene is carcinogenic.

The fact is these soft drinks were over the legal limit.
As such, they are not appropriate for marketing.

As for benzene's toxicity, it is well that benzene is a cancer-causing chemical. So we should avoid it.

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