March 4th, 2006

FDA Again Finds Benzene in Sodas

By David Goldstein
Knight Ridder Newspapers

When small amounts of benzene, a cancer-causing chemical, were found in some soft drinks 16 years ago, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) 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.

But benzene has turned up again. The FDA 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.

The FDA and the beverage industry said the amounts were small and the problem didn’t appear widespread.

"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."

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

Neither Keane nor Pauli would identify the drinks being tested because the investigation is continuing.

Pauli said 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 the FDA has tested so far, benzene levels have ranged from two and three parts per billion to more than 10 to 20 parts per billion.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) 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 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 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 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.

But a 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 that studies toxic chemicals.

Soft-drink manufacturers PepsiCo and Coca-Cola declined to comment.

Keane said the industry told the FDA in 1990 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.

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.

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