Tests conducted on 100 soft drinks and beverages by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration), US indicated that five of these showed the presence of benzene, a carcinogen in much higher amount than the recommended 5 parts per billion for drinking water.
FDA had alerted these companies, and they had either decided to reformulate the soft drinks or had already done so. Though environmental companies had expressed concern regarding this, it was not an issue, as informed by FDA.
These are the five soft drink/beverage that had higher levels of benzene:
Safeway Select Diet Orange - one lot was found to have 79.2 parts per billion of benzene
AquaCal Strawberry Flavored Water Beverage - one lot was found to have 23.4 parts per billion
Crystal Light Sunrise Classic Orange - one lot was found to have 87.9 parts per billion
Giant Light Cranberry Juice Cocktail - one lot was found to have 10.7 parts per billion
Crush Pineapple - one lot was found to have 9.2 parts per billion
The test had its own limitations. Some and not all the lots had more than the recommended level of benzene, reveals FDA. The information too had its own limitations; the increased benzene levels were only in one of the production samples and hence not necessarily in all the products from that lot or in all the lots of a given product.
Low levels of benzene were detected in most of the drinks studied by FDA, says Laura Tarantino, MD, Director of Food Additive Safety, FDA. She further added that most of the products they studied had low or negligible amount of benzene and very few had higher levels.
Since this is a sporadic exposure and not a regular one, no health risk is posed by the intake of such sodas. Though benzene intake is not desired, the amount in soda is insignificant in contrast to what one takes from the daily environmental sources, says Dr Tarantino.
Presence of benzene in the soft drinks is a sensitive subject these days. Vitamin C/ Ascorbic acid reacts with sodium/potassium benzoate from the soft drinks or beverages to form benzene. This reaction does not always take place but only under favorable circumstances.
Benzene, a chemical is carcinogenic in humans. Its presence in air is from automobile emissions, burning coal and oil. Benzene is used in the production of chemicals, dyes, detergents, synthetic fibers, solvents, rubber and some plastics. People who are exposed to benzene e.g. workers from chemical industry, gas stations, gasoline distribution jobs, rubber industry, printing industry and leather industry have an increased risk.
There is no upper limit set by FDA in soft drinks and it follows the level set by the US Environmental Protection Agency, i.e. 5 parts per billion (ppb). Benzene can be harmful at very low levels. Benzene gets formed in soft drinks when exposed to light.
An NGO Environmental Working Group criticized FDA for not giving a serious thought to the presence of benzene. Further more, its senior vice president Richard Wiles added that the presence of benzene in soda/juices was serious as reported by FDA. He added that the beverage industry should not add chemicals that produce the carcinogen benzene to sodas and juices.
It was only in the 1990s that FDA highlighted the presence of benzene in soft drinks. It conducted a food-testing program called the Total Diet Study between 1995 to 2000 during which it found that out of the 24 samples of diet soda that were studied for the benzene presence, 19 samples (79%) had higher levels of benzene.
According to Wiles, FDA should test soft drinks/juices by selecting a few samples from the racks - as was done by officials in Britain in the beginning of this year - and let the people know which of the products have more benzene and also indicate under which conditions is Benzene likely to be formed, such as storage under warm conditions for a long period of time.
Letting the consumer know the presence of benzene will naturally force manufacturers to reformulate the soft drinks/juices as some have done already and this is what FDA wanted in 1990.
There is no doubt that benzene causes cancer and it is to be totally avoided says World Heath Organization (WHO). Benzene can cause leukemia and can also pass through the placenta and affect the fetus.