I’ll have benzene with soda on the rocks, thanks.
© Robert Anderson PhD
A version of this article was first published in Organic NZ, May/June 2006 Vol. 65 No 3
After sixteen years the FDA have decided to let the world know that our children’s fizzy drinks may just start to generate one of the most common cancer-causing chemicals:  benzene. Why now? Because an independent laboratory in New York has suddenly found that, yes, fizzy drinks containing a common additive can generate benzene.
In the same way that they ignored their scientists’ warnings on GE-foods, the FDA[i]did the same with soft drinks. Way back in 1990, FDA scientists expressed grave fears that sodium benzoate – that is added to most soft drinks to kill bacteria - could pose serious health risks. In the presence of hydroxyl ions, sodium benzoate can revert back to its component benzene, a dangerous carcinogen. More than 1500 soft drink products containing sodium benzoate and ascorbic acid or citric acid (see later) have been launched across the globe since January 2002. If you are looking at labels, sodium benzoate is listed as additive E211.
A released internal FDA memo indicates that Cadbury Schweppes and Australian drinks group Koala Springs first alerted the Administration to this problem in December 1990. The findings were discussed in a meeting between the FDA and the National Soft Drinks Association (NSDA), and the internal minutes from this meeting report that the companies, through the NSDA, “expressed concern about the presence of benzene traces in their products and the potential for adverse publicity associated with this problem.”
An article covering the problem first appeared in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry in 1993. The co-author of the article, Dr Glen Lawrence, also conducted benzene tests for the FDA in 1990 and confirmed that sodium benzoate and ascorbic acid do react to form benzene in soft drinks.
FDA chemist, Dr Greg Diachenko, who helped to co-ordinate the FDA testing for benzene in 1990 and who joined in negotiations with the industry, said: “Soft drinks manufacturers told us (at the time) that they would get the word out and they were reformulating.” The FDA did not make the findings public, but came to an “arrangement” with the US Soft Drinks Association that the industry would “get the word out.” Sixteen years later, the word is still awaited.
Over recent months, internal documents and private tests have begun to surface, supporting the claims from a former chemist of Cadbury Schweppes. Frustrated by the lack of warnings from the food industry, he is now keen to blow the whistle and expose the health risk involved. He and a US lawyer commissioned new tests that have now forced the FDA to re-open the case and look more seriously into the risks. British and German authorities also moved quickly to begin testing brands of soft drinks after realising the FDA are re-opening its investigation into benzene formation in soft drinks. Germany’s food watchdog, BfR, have confirmed they are testing soft drinks containing the common ingredients ascorbic acid (vitamin C) and sodium benzoate for possible dangers.
The response of the New Zealand Food Safety Authority is that they are ‘maintaining a watching brief.’ Their ‘brief’ should be to immediately start testing New Zealand soft drinks. As Green Party MP, Sue Kedgley, commented recently[ii], “Consumers will not be amused to learn not only that there are potentially cancer causing residues in commonly available soft drinks, but that American officials have known about this problem for more than a decade, and failed to act. The Authority needs to undertake urgent testing to assure consumers that carbonated drinks containing the combination of sodium benzoate (additive 211) and ascorbic acid are safe.” This is especially important, as children are the greatest consumers of soft drinks.
Independent testing, performed by a laboratory in New York, found benzene levels in two soft drinks two-and-a-half-times and five times above the World Health Organisation limit for drinking water.[iii] After this alert, the FDA confirmed that it also found similar problems in its own follow-up testing. One FDA chemist said, “There were a few isolated products that have elevated levels. We certainly want to make sure there is some reformulation.” In addition to the questionable fluorescent dyes, the additive sodium benzoate is common to most of these beverages.
Studies show that ascorbic acid can react with metals, such as copper or iron, found in water to create ‘free radical’ particles known as hydroxyl radicals. Meanwhile, sodium benzoate breaks down into benzoic acid when placed in acidic conditions, such as soft drinks. This hydroxyl ion then attacks the benzoic acid, removing the carbon dioxide from it and leaving ‘raw’ benzene behind. According to Dr Glen Lawrence, this reaction could take place “under conditions prevalent in many foods and beverages.”
Dr Lawrence points out that the problem is easily solved. “There is no good reason to add ascorbic acid (vitamin C) to soft drinks, and those that may have ascorbic acid naturally in them (juices) should not use sodium benzoate as a preservative. So it is really very easy to avoid the problem.”
A dilemma I find of particular concern is that the formation of this dangerous compound may be exacerbated in the intense UV-containing sunlight conditions of New Zealand. Independent industry tests have revealed that the problem could get worse in a drink exposed to heat and/or light. UV light is a powerful chemical catalyst, a fact that has been known for some time. Because many of our drinks arrive on the doorstep of our shops and dairies and may sit there for some considerable time in the sunlight should pose further concern.
In 2002, a commercial court in Britain decision warned: “The public perception will be that the carcinogen simply ought not to be present at all and that the manufacturers ought not to attempt to sell products which have been in that way inadvertently contaminated.” The court also concluded that, “from time to time, relatively high yet not injurious levels of benzene seem to appear in uncarbonated drinks, which on the evidence can only be accounted for by the use of benzoate preservative.”
People today are choosing bottled water in the belief that it is purer and healthier. Because low levels of lead or chlorination by-products are sometimes found in tap water, most bottled water drinkers believe the bottled variety is healthier than water from the tap. But is it? In the past even bottled water has proven risky. According to Dr Terry Troxell, director of the FDA’s division of programmes and enforcement policy in the Office of Plant and Dairy Foods and Beverages: “If we (the FDA) find a problem during an inspection, we make that company a priority and FDA field personnel inspect it more frequently. For example, after the Perrier ‘mineral’ water incident in 1990 (when the carcinogen benzene was found in Perrier), we did a follow-up survey to analyse the water’s quality.”
I am not suggesting that benzene or other dangerous contaminants exist in bottled water sold here. Putting aside the ludicrous wasteful practice of importing bottled drinking water from Australia, I wonder if bottled water sold in NZ is tested.
As far as benzene in fizzy drinks goes we may have to wait for the results of the FDA investigation. Personally, I think it shameful that the NZFSA is unwilling to immediately begin our own tests for conditions here. The US does not have the intense sunlight that we have and may therefore ignore such a test. Sitting on the beach, watching children thirstily consuming these various soft drinks, will now take on a whole new meaning.
Robert Anderson BSc (Hons) PhD
4 February 1242 - 5 December 2008
Robert Anderson was a Trustee of Physicians and Scientists for Global Responsibility (formerly Physicians and Scientists for Responsible Genetics) www.psgr.org.nz. He authored The Final Pollution: Genetic Apocalypse, Exploding the Myth of Genetic Engineering and several other publications on environmental, health and social justice issues.
View his lectures on this website

Address enquiries for Robert Anderson's publications currently in print to naturesstar@xtra.co.nz

[i] http://www.fda.gov/
[ii] Press Release: Green Party Wednesday, 22 February 2006
[iii] 10 parts per billion