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Some science behind the scenes


Benzene is classified as a clastogen.  A clastogen in biology is a mutagenic agent giving rise to or inducing disruption or breakages of chromosomes, leading to sections of the chromosome being deleted, added, or rearranged. This process is a form of mutagenesis, and can lead to carcinogenesis, as cells that are not killed by the clastogenic effect may become cancerous.

Known clastogens include acridine yellow, benzene, ethylene oxide, arsenic, phosphine and mimosine. Exposure to clastogens increases frequency of abnormal germ cells in paternal males, contributing to developmental effects in the fetus upon fertilization.

Benzene in soft drinks

Benzoic acid is and I quote “often added to drinks as a preservative in the form of its salts

·        sodium benzoate (E211),

·        potassium benzoate (E 212), or

·        calcium benzoate (E 213).

According to Wikipedia “ Citric acid is not thought to induce significant benzene production in combination with benzoic acid, but some evidence suggests that in the presence of ascorbic or erythorbic acid and benzoic acid, citric acid may accelerate the production of benzene

Understandably the scientists that have pointed this out have very specifically stated that “Benzene in soft drinks is of potential concern due to the carcinogenic nature of the benzene molecule.”

Benzene levels are regulated in drinking water nationally and internationally, and in bottled water in the United States, but only informally in soft drinks.

Food standards agency response

The dangers associated with Benzene in soft drinks was identified way back in 1990, the soft drink industry itself initially approached the FDA with concerns, and the FDA then asked manufacturers to voluntarily reformulate. By 1993, research had established how benzene can form from benzoic acid in the presence of vitamin C and since then, a Belgian study has found that plastic packaging may also play an important role in the formation of benzene in soft drinks.

In November 2005, the FDA received test results conducted by private citizens that benzene was forming at low levels in several types of beverages and in December 2005, Germany's Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (Bundesinstitut für Risikobewertung) published a review of benzene's possible formation in foods and drinks.

In February 2006, an unnamed former chemist at the FDA publicly revealed that benzene may be created as part of a chemical reaction during production of soft drinks, particularly those having an orange flavour. Full-scale investigations immediately started at the Food Standards Agency (UK) and in Germany to reveal exactly which amounts of benzene, if any, were present, with several other organizations awaiting their findings.

The United Kingdom's Food Standards Agency released results on March 31, 2006 for 150 beverages. Its results showed 43 beverages contained benzene, four of which contained levels above the World Health Organization drinking water standards (10 ppb). These four were withdrawn from sale.

In April 2006, the Korea Food & Drug Administration (KFDA) announced that it had detected benzene in 27 out of 30 (90%) vitamin-enriched drinks on sale in South Korea. It said the detected amount of benzene – ranging from 5.7 to 87.8 ppb – ‘was not harmful to humans’ but advised manufacturers of beverages containing more than 10 ppb of benzene to voluntarily recall their products.

But over and over again, the Food Standard agencies have had to demand that products be removed from sale.  For example two drinks tested by the FDA contained amounts 15-18 times above the drinking water standard. Many of the products also showed large variations in the amount of benzene they contained, partly because the conditions under which the products are stored alter the effect.  Heat and light both increase the amounts.  A watchdog organization, the Environmental Working Group, -   EWG - criticized the FDA for not acting on the Total Diet Study results showing that nearly 80% of the diet soft drinks exceeded the federal drinking water standards.

On 24 August 2006, two soft drink manufacturers agreed to settle a class-action lawsuit that had been filed by a group of parents in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. “The two companies, Zone Brands Inc., maker of "BellyWashers" products, and TalkingRain Beverage Co., denied that their products were harmful, but agreed to change the ingredients in their drinks.”

Fanta and Sprite, Coca-Cola Zero and Barq's root beer still contains benzoate (added as potassium salt and sodium salt respectively), according to Wikipedia.

Various food standards agencies have since stated that Benzene in soft drinks has to be seen in the context of other environmental exposure. The UK Food Standards Agency, for example, has stated that “people would need to drink at least 20 litres (5.5 gal) per day of a drink containing benzene at 10 μg to equal the amount of benzene they would breathe from city air every day.

Given that daily personal exposure to benzene is determined by adding exposure from all sources, this would not seem to be a very comforting statement, particularly as benzene is

·        inhaled by a motorist refilling a fuel tank for three minutes

·        inhaled every day due to general atmospheric pollution

·        inhaled by daily exposure from "automobile-related activities" including driving

·        inhaled if you are a smoker : For smokers, cigarette smoking is the main source of exposure to benzene, but even if you are a ‘passive smoker’, there will be Benzene intake.