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Benzene Scare: Soft Drinks

Written by Posted On Wednesday, 05 July 2006 17:00

Benzene is a dangerous substance -- a chemical which is frequently found in gasoline and polluted air.

Clearly, it is not a good idea to ingest benzene. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, benzene is usually found in air emissions from burning coal and oil, at gas service stations and from motor vehicle exhaust and persons with short term exposure to benzene can develop drowsiness, dizziness, headaches and other respiratory problems. At higher levels, they can lose consciousness.

Long term exposure has been linked to various disorders in the blood, including a diminution in the number of red blood cells. There are reports of reproductive impacts to women who have been exposed to high levels of benzene and adverse effects on developing fetuses in laboratory animals.

The EPA reports increased incidents of Leukemia in humans who are occupationally exposed to benzene. According to the EPA, benzene is a group A human carcinogen.

Thus, we can all readily agree that benzene is dangerous. And for precisely this reason, benzene is the last thing that we should expect to find in a can of soda.

But recent tests have indicated that benzene is contained in some soda brands.

According to the US Food and Drug Administration, last November the agency received private laboratory results which reflected low levels of benzene in some soft drinks that contained both benzoate salts and ascorbic acid.

Apparently, elevated temperatures and light induce benzene formation in the presence of these salts and acids. In other words, the benzene is not added by the manufacturer, but rather develops while the product is being stored or is in transit.

The FDA Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition began a study of beverages with a focus on drinks that contained these chemicals. Most of these beverages contained either low levels or no levels of benzene. That is the good news.

However, some did contain levels of benzene that exceeded safe levels. In some cases, safe levels were substantially exceeded.

According to the government, over 100 soft drink and beverage samples were collected from stores in three states. Only four beverage products contained benzene above five parts per billion.

Five parts per billion is a significant number, because it is the maximum amount of benzene which the EPA permits in drinking water. Thus, five products contained benzene above the minimum established for safe drinking water.

According to the government, there are numerous caveats associated with this data.

The data is considered to be at least questionable because it evaluated a limited number of products, a limited number of brands and a limited geographic region.

Also, questions concerning the difference between one production lot and another production lot were not taken into account. Factors such as temperature and amount of light exposure during shipping, handling and storage can also affect the amount of benzene and were not accounted for during the three state evaluation.

Notwithstanding all of these appropriate disclaimers, the fact is that certain beverages seem to produce benzene during the shipping and storage phases of production. While the FDA is confident that industry is undertaking measures to keep benzene levels below acceptable levels for drinking water, I certainly do not find that to be overly comforting.

If you go on the US Food and Drug Administration website, you can find the listing of products which thus far contain benzene at high levels. Without naming names in this article, I can tell you that most of the levels seem to be fairly low. But at least one product reported levels at 79.2 parts per billion. Remember the safe maximum level in water is 5 parts per billion.

Perhaps not surprisingly, lawsuits have been filed against numerous manufacturers of beverages in several states. And I am sure there will be persons who will take shots at the lawyers who have filed these suits claiming that they are greedy and this is nothing but another way for attorneys to make money.

Attorneys are certainly in business and businesses do generate profits. But, can we explain how it is that these manufacturers have engaged in the production of a product for years without evaluating the chemical properties of their product? In particular, how it is that these manufacturers allowed a known carcinogen to be sold to the public as part of their product?

You can be cynical, and you can blame lawyers. Maybe that is fair. But also, take a look at these companies. How many people might be more likely to develop a serious disease because of exposure to these products?

Isn't it reasonable for the public to assume that its soda pop isn't going to cause cancer?

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