March 25th, 2006

State Alerted On Benzene In Soft Drinks

By Loretta Waldman
Hartford Courant

New concerns about benzene in soft drinks have prompted doctors from Yale, Harvard and elsewhere to call for a ban on the drinks in schools.

In a letter sent to state Education Commissioner Betty Sternberg and education officials across the country, the health professionals - including the head of the American Academy of Pediatrics - joined an Oregon-based nonprofit group in asking the schools to stop selling and marketing certain soft drinks until they are shown to be free of benzene, which is a known human carcinogen.

According to a letter sent by Commercial Alert on Thursday, soft drink manufacturers are not adding benzene to the drinks directly. Rather, the compound is formed in some soft drinks by a reaction of ascorbic acid, or vitamin C, and the preservatives sodium and potassium benzoate, especially in the presence of heat and light.

Scientists at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration have found that the drinks contain concentrations of benzene above the federal limit for drinking water, the letter states. Chronic exposure to benzene is associated with leukemia, aplastic anemia and other blood diseases, the letter states, adding that children may be especially sensitive to benzene because their bone marrow cells are highly active.

David Katz, director of the Yale Prevention Research Center and one of the 10 health professionals to sign the letter, said the revelation adds yet another reason not to make soda available to children.

“Now, in addition to the calories, parents and educators should be aware that some of the drinks they give children contain poison,” Katz said. “Here we’ve got a genuinely worrisome reason to focus on soda in schools.”

Gary Ruskin, executive director of Commercial Alert, produced documents showing the FDA and soft drink associations have known for 15 years that the common ingredients could react to form benzene in drinks. The FDA, however, maintains it does not present an immediate health risk at present levels.

“The issue here is not something that should cause anyone alarm or terrific concern,” George Pauli, a top food-safety expert at the FDA, told the Orlando Sentinel earlier this month.

Sternberg declined to comment and referred questions to Susan Fiore, nutrition education coordinator for the state Department of Education and author of the nutrition policy at the heart of a bill that, among other things, would remove soda from schools.

“We really were not looking at that research, which is news to me,” Fiore said of the benzene, “but it’s kind of a moot point, because we want to get soda out anyway due to the low nutrient value.”

Last year, soda and junk food in public schools was one of the most heavily lobbied and bitterly debated issues in the legislature. The sale of soft drinks is a $90 billion industry that in Connecticut generates about $5 million a year for schools. The House and Senate eventually passed a bill banning both from schools only to have it vetoed by Gov. M. Jodi Rell, whose objections centered on an unrelated 20-minute exercise provision she believed impinged on the autonomy of local districts.

Last month, Rell and state Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn, announced a measure that would impose a ban during the school day on the sale of soda and sports drinks. School cafeterias and vending machines would be limited to the sale of water, low-fat or skim milk, non-dairy milk and juice.

But passage of the bill, which encourages districts to adhere to nutritional standards by nearly doubling the current nickel-per-meal subsidy, is far from certain, observers say. Along with heavy opposition from soda and snack-food companies - which spent $250,000 lobbying against last year’s bill - local Teamsters are also working to defeat it.

Christopher Roos, head of South Windsor-based Teamsters Local 1035, said the bill’s impact would be “devastating” to his members, 121 of whom would lose their jobs if it were to pass

Kevin Keene, a spokesman for the American Beverage Association, called the Commercial Alert letter “irresponsible” and with “no basis in fact.”

“Our foremost concern is always our customer, so we’ve always taken seriously the quality and safety of our product,” he said.

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