Benzene, a cancer-causing chemical found in gasoline, smog and cigarette smoke, can form in soft drinks that contain ascorbic acid (vitamin C) and the preservative sodium benzoate.
The FDA maintains that benzene in soda is not a concern at this time, yet they aren't releasing the results of their study on benzene levels in beverages to the public.
U.S. officials and members of the beverage industry have known about this for some 15 years, and drink makers were supposed to reformulate their products to prevent the problem over a decade ago.
However, recent tests have uncovered that some beverages still contain high levels of benzene, particularly when exposed to high heat, raising consumer concerns and prompting the filing of a class-action lawsuit.
Benzene Levels Higher Than Allowed in Drinking Water
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has set a level of 5 parts per billion (ppb) as the safe upper limit of benzene in drinking water. When concerns over a private study that found some drinks may contain benzene were raised in November 2005, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) began testing a small sampling of beverages.
While they have refused to make their results public, Laura Tarantino, the FDA's director of food additive safety, said that only a "very, very few samples" had slightly elevated levels of benzene.
However, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) believes the FDA's refusal to make their test results public is a cause for alarm in itself.
"We simply asked for them to disclose the results of their testing. If there's nothing to hide, why won't they show us numbers? It might be a small percentage, but there is some percentage of drinks that have very elevated levels of benzene," said Richard Wiles, EWG's senior vice president.
Tarantino disagrees. "To release all the data now could be confusing," she said. "It's not only not good for companies; it's not particularly good for consumers. It doesn't give them any useful information. One of the misperceptions is that anytime you see ascorbic acid and benzoate, you're going to automatically have high levels of benzene, and that just isn't so."
Still, between 1995 and 2001, as part of the FDA's Total Diet Study, the FDA tested 24 samples of diet soda for benzene. It was found that:
* 19 (79 percent) were contaminated with benzene above 5 parts per billion.
* The average benzene level was 19 ppb.
* The maximum benzene detection was 55 ppb, 11 times the tap water limit.
Further, the issue extends beyond soft drinks. The Total Diet Study also found that one powdered fruit drink sample had benzene levels of 95 ppb, and orange and grapefruit juice from concentrate also contained benzene levels in excess of the allowed 5 ppb.
"These results confirm our suspicions that there are highly elevated benzene levels in some very popular drinks," Wiles said.
Class-Action Lawsuits Filed
Polar Beverages' Diet Orange Dry was found via independent tests to contain 9.1 ppb of benzene, according to plaintiffs involved in a class-action lawsuit.
In April 2006, class-action lawsuits were filed in Massachusetts and Florida that claim two beverages contain benzene levels that are above the EPA's safe limit for drinking water and seek to ban the sale of the drinks in those two states.
The suits involve two beverage makers, Polar Beverages and In Zone Brands. According to plaintiffs' independent tests:
* Polar Beverages' Diet Orange Dry contained 9.1 ppb of benzene.
* BellyWashers 2/3 Less Sugar, made by In Zone Brands, contained 69 ppb of benzene.
The American Beverage Association (ABA), along with both beverage manufacturers named in the suits, maintain that their drinks are safe.
"What was reported in the paper was considerably higher than anything In Zone has seen in their tests," says In Zone Brands spokesman Bob Hope, an In Zone Brands spokesman. Polar Beverages said that its own tests found no benzene in Diet Orange Dry.
The ABA also mentioned that people get "more benzene from breathing the air around them everyday." Did we mention that the chairman of the ABA, Ralph Crowley, Jr., also happens to be the president and CEO of Polar Beverages?
What You Can do if You're Concerned About Benzene in Soda and Other Drinks
The Environmental Working Group is collecting signatures for an online petition to the FDA. Their purpose? To tell the FDA to get benzene out of soft drinks. If you'd like more information you can view the petition here.
Meanwhile, although, according to Judy Kidwell, an FDA consumer safety officer, "the FDA does not believe benzene poses a concern," you can play it safe by cutting down on your (and your family's) soft drink intake or eliminating sodas altogether.