We’ve covered the FDA failure leading to their overlooking benzene in soda pretty often (at least if pretty often means here, here, here, here, here, here and here). It’s like the guy who went to the doctor complaining of pain in his belly. “Ever have it before?” the doctor asked. “Yes, twice” the patient said. “Well, you have it again.”
In this installment we learn that the benzene, a known human carcinogen, doesn’t really have to be there. Recall how it got there. Two preservatives commonly added to soft drinks, ascorbic acid (Vitamin C) and sodium benzoate, react to produce the benzene while in storage. The warmer and older the soda the more benzene. The FDA and soda makers have known about the problem since 1990 but the FDA assumed that the soda folks would “get the word out” and solve the problem. The word that got out, apparently, was “mum,” as in “mum’s the word about benzene.” So the public drank soft drinks with a human carcinogen in it at levels that sometimes far exceeded the health standard. The drinking water standard that is. That’s regulated by EPA. Soda is a food, so it’s regulated by FDA. Apparently when benzene is drunk in the form of soda you don’t need a standard.
Not all sodas had benzene it them. In fact there was tremendous variation. That meant that something could be done about it and a class action lawsuit was settled against the biggest companies requiring them to reformulate their products to bring benzene levels down. Now a study of one of the worst offenders, Crystal Light Sunrise Classic Orange (CLSCO), has shown that reformulation can dramatically reduce the levels. CLSCO had benzene levels as high as 90 parts per billion. The drinking water standard is 5 ppb. They hired an industry friendly consulting company, ChemRisk, to analyze 28 off the shelf samples of their product before and after reformulation. They went from 90 down to 4 ppb in 1 liter bottles and below 1 ppb in 16 oz. bottles.
OK. We know it can be done. Now what about the other products out there? Not all manufacturers were party to the lawsuits.
Ascorbic acid and benzoate salts are still used in many drinks that are sold worldwide. The exposed population is huge, probably in the billions. Even if the risk is very small, say one in a million per year, that’s a thousand people getting cancer a year from drinking soda. Meanwhile the FDA still does not have a health standard for benzene in soft drinks.
We’re making progress. Very, very slowly.