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Soft Drinks' Benzene Problem

Soft Drinks' Benzene Problem

October 26, 2007 —

Most people would say that drinking soda on a daily basis is not the healthiest thing to do. If asked, they would probably explain that teeth decay, calories, and even weight gain are the major concerns.  Yet, the soda industry may have larger problems on the horizon. Benzene, a carcinogen linked to leukemia and other forms of cancer, has been found in some soda drinks. The question now: What is the soda industry doing to protect the consuming public?

In early 2006, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) began to study soft drinks for benzene, which can form in certain beverages under certain conditions, such as exposure to heat and light. The FDA tests were in response to individual testing in 2005 that found high levels of benzene in a number of drinks. Even when the FDA began testing, however, the agency did not make any public announcement about the possibility of benzene in soda drinks.  Public attention was limited to independent news sources and activist groups such as the Environmental Working Group (EWG).

How Much Benzene is Safe in Your Soda?

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there is no safe level of exposure to benzene and the U.S. government does regulate the amount of benzene acceptable in drinking water to 5 parts per billion (ppb).  What is most disturbing about the situation is that in 1990, the FDA learned that certain soft drinks marketed to children contain two ingredients (sodium benzoate and ascorbic acid) that can mix in the soda to form benzene. The Agency didn't tell the public, but instead asked companies to voluntarily change their formulas to eliminate the problem. The products in 1990 were never recalled and neither the FDA nor the soda industry ever informed the public.

Activists have demanded explanations as to why, if the change in formula during the 1990s supposedly eliminated the problem, new studies have found benzene. The soda industry, as represented by the American Beverage Association (ABA) has repeatedly argued that the levels of benzene found in sodas pose little health risk to consumers since people could get benzene from the air they breathed.  In 2007, Coke agreed to take Benzene out of its soda (due to a lawsuit), but Pepsi, Sunny D, Shasta, and other companies have not yet agreed to do the same. 

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