Benzene in soda: progress but still some way to go

News on the benzene-in-softdrinks front (for background see here, here, here, here, here and the Environmental Working Group site). The dominoes are starting to fall and the first was a big one, Coca Cola:

Consumer lawyers and The Coca-Cola Company announced today a legal settlement involving Fanta Pineapple and Vault Zero products.

"We are very pleased to join with The Coca-Cola Company in announcing this settlement," said Boston attorney Andrew Rainer and Florida attorney and Northeastern University Law and Policy Professor Tim Howard, who represented the consumers.

Although the FDA and other food safety authorities have reiterated that there is no known health risk to consumers from the benzene levels found in soft drinks, the Coca-Cola Company has recently reformulated its Vault Zero and Fanta Pineapple products to minimize or eliminate possibility that those products can form benzene.

Products labeled with a best-buy date of January 2008 or later are the reformulated Vault Zero and Fanta Pineapple products.

The Coca-Cola Company also agreed through the settlement to make available on its website a program for the refund or replacement of products. Information and details concerning this program are available by calling 1-800-438-2653 or at (Public statement on settlement by the involved parties)

The story isn't over, however, because there are other companies who so far refuse to settle: beverage makers Pepsi, Sunny Delight, Shasta, Rockstar, Polar and retailers Safeway and Publix:

In the wake of Coca Cola?s settlement of litigation related to the presence of benzene in popular soft drinks, parents and their attorneys called upon the remaining defendants -- including soft drink giant PepsiCo and youth beverage companies Sunny Delight, Shasta and Rockstar -- to reformulate their beverages, remove potentially harmful product from store shelves, and offer refunds to consumers who purchased beverages with ingredients that can combine to form benzene, a known carcinogen.

Hundreds of million of bottles of the soft drinks were sold each year -- Pepsi sold more than 200 million bottles of Diet Wild Cherry Pepsi in 2006 alone. Diet Wild Cherry Pepsi, Sunny D Baja Orange, and other products with the hazardous ingredients are still on store shelves.

The two ingredients, ascorbic acid (Vitamin C) and sodium benzoate, can combine to form benzene when exposed to heat or light. Tests of the products by both the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and private parties found benzene levels that were far higher than the maximum levels of 5 parts per billion set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for benzene in drinking water. Diet Wild Cherry Pepsi, Sunny Delight Baja Berry, Polar Diet Orange Dry, and Shasta Orange were all tested and found to have benzene levels more than three times the EPA standard. EPA has stated that the safe level of benzene in drinking water is zero. (Press Release from plaintiffs)

The presence of benzene at levels above what would be allowed in a community drinking water supply is unacceptable from both the public health and the political perspective, as Coca Cola realizes. The amounts of benzene varies and is apparently related to the storage conditions and formulation of a particular bottle, but the levels are often two to three or more times the drinking water standard. Benzene is a known human carcinogen, and while the levels are in the part per billion range, there are good public health reasons that the EPA's recommended level in drinking water is zero (see our posts on this topic here, here and here).

Three of the remaining defendants make drinks marketed directly to children -- Sunny Delight, Shasta and Rockstar Energy Drinks. We love to wring our hands about imported pet food adulterated with melamine from China (see here and here), but food safety is also a problem for American and European companies. If I had to choose between melamine and benzene, I think I'd take melamine.

But why should I have to choose?

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Easier choice; don't buy soda.

Relatively clean drinking water, tea and coffee (from who knows where)...
Organic juices... Kids especailly don't need any soda.

By crfullmoon (not verified) on 15 May 2007 #permalink

I may be behind on this, but weren't the tests found to be faulty? If I remember an article in C&E News correctly, it was found that the *test* actually turned the sodium benzoate into benzene.

Colst: My understanding is that the testing has been straightened out and that there is general agreement that the benzene problem is real and not an artifact.


Ok, as I said, I may be behind on this. The last I had read was about a year ago. I did find the data from some FDA tests:

Although most were found to have no detectable amount or amounts below the drinking water standard, there definitely some with higher concentrations. Interestingly, they also found some benzene in fruit (specifically cranberrry) juice.


Although I no longer drink Coca-Cola, I have a fondness for it. I wouldn't be suprised if it's the result of the massive marketing campaign just as cigarette manufactures had product placement in people's homes on coffee tables in the 50s. Either way, my relationship to Coca-Cola is turning from the fondness of the sugary goodness as a child to the repulsion I have for the cigarette industry. Benzene use is reprehensible.

Storage conditions and heat affect benzene levels. Mexico is the number one per capita consumer of Coca Cola in the world and number two (after US) consumer of sodas in general. Huge trucks of the stuff are shipped through hot tropical areas and stored in in rustic warehouses. No one has tested benzene as far as I know or if they have, not a word to the public. No pasa nada, as we say in Mexico.

Even if the drinks were safe, and even if they were nutritious, the mining and processing of aluminum cans and the creation of virtually indestructible plastic drink bottles is reason enough to cease and desist. I take the large bottles that others throw out, cut out the top and bottom, and use them in my garden for sort of mini greenhouses early in the spring - been using the same ones for years. Unlike other plastics they don't deteriorate quickly. So many reasons to ban them, so little will

Why doesn't anyone take similar action on acrylamide in processed foods? EPA allows 0.5 ppb in water. French fries and potato chips have 300 to 1,000 times that concentration (I think Pringles are much worse). Acrylamide is a known neurotoxin and a probable carcinogen, but concern about it has almost completely petered out. Anybody know why?

Annodeus: There have been a couple of epi studies (if memory serves, Francie Laden at Harvard did one recently) that suggested the risk, if there, wasn't large, but I don't remember the details. It's been awhile since I looked at the acrylamide issue and you prompt me to check it again for status.

Tangentially -- you refer back to posts from 2005 on policy, carcinogens and epidemiology as a poor tool compared to testing. I noticed this today:

Sorting Out Good Science From the Bad - Newsweek Sharon Begley ...
A new blog by NEWSWEEK's Sharon Begley examines new scientific research
[well, a year old] noting how industry does its testing --- for example they tested for effects of a
hormone mimicing chemical on a strain of rat that is insensitive to estrogen. ...

By Hank Roberts (not verified) on 17 May 2007 #permalink

In this day and age I believe it's disgusting, and morally wrong that we as caring individuals, wth. our own govmnt'. can't step in and above, the corrupted money making companies that put these vile chemicals in our products.. They should be forced to take out ALL that chemicals that could mix wth. others in heat etc. I've seen the QT's stack boxes and boxes of the stuff outside in the sun in the middle of the summer!!And then we so trustingly buy them who knows when!!! And they aren't the only ones that do this, many places do. I am sure that if you walked around the govmnt'. offices there would be many a coke can and Zero Fanta etc.on desks around as well!!! mmmmmmmm???You'd think they'd care too!

By bBollinger (not verified) on 02 Jan 2009 #permalink