April 26th, 2006

Soft Drinks and Benzene

Hartford Courant

Officials of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration may not take seriously the relative health threats posed by the presence of benzene in soft drinks. But that should only lend further momentum to the adoption of a state law restricting the sales of these drinks in schools.

The nonprofit advocacy group Commercial Alert created a public furor recently with a letter announcing that the FDA has found levels of benzene in certain soft drinks that exceed standards for drinking water. The benzene results from the reaction of ascorbic acid to preservatives used in some drinks - sodium or potassium benzoate - and depends on shelf life and exposure to heat and light. Chronic exposure to benzene is linked to leukemia, aplastic anemia and other blood diseases.

The FDA maintains its findings are preliminary; a spokeswoman said the elevated levels of benzene occurred in a “very, very few samples.” Still, the news has triggered justifiable alarm among health and education experts who in Connecticut have pressed for the ban on soft drink sales during the school day (as if the growing body of evidence linking soft drinks and childhood obesity isn’t reason enough).

Under the bill passed by the state Senate last week, schools would be limited to selling milk, juices, water and nondairy milks during the day. Districts following that and other food guidelines would get 10 cents for every lunch sold. Soft-drink sales would be allowed at school-sponsored events at the end of the day or on the weekends.

So why wait for the FDA’s verdict on benzene? The link between soft drinks and obesity is clear. 

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