For More Information Contact: Elizabeth Ben-Ishai (202) 588-7746
For Immediate Release: March 23rd, 2006
Benzene in Some Soft Drinks Prompts Call for Halt on Sales in Schools
In response to recent findings by scientists at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and elsewhere that certain soft drinks may contain amounts of the carcinogen benzene above the U.S. legal limit for drinking water, Commercial Alert and public health advocates sent letters today to all U.S. chief state school officers, asking them to stop the sale and marketing of these soft drinks in public schools, until they can be proven safe and free from benzene contamination.
The letter was written and organized by Commercial Alert, a nonprofit organization that protects children and communities from commercialism. The letter follows.
Dear Chief State School Officer:
As you may know, scientists at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and elsewhere have found that some soft drinks sold commonly in the U.S. contain concentrations of benzene above the U.S. legal limit for drinking water.
Benzene is classified as a known human carcinogen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Chronic exposure to benzene is associated with leukemia, aplastic anemia and other blood diseases. Children may be especially sensitive to benzene because their bone marrow cells are highly active.
Accordingly, we urge you and local school officials to cease the sale and marketing of certain soft drinks in public schools until they are shown to be safe and free of the toxic substance benzene.
Soft drink manufacturers are not adding benzene to the drinks directly. Rather, the compound is formed by a reaction of ascorbic acid (vitamin C) and sodium or potassium benzoate (which are used as preservatives)—especially in the presence of light or heat. Soft drinks that contain ascorbic acid and sodium or potassium benzoate include Diet Pepsi Wild Cherry, Fanta Orange, Hawaiian Punch, Mug Root Beer, Pepsi Vanilla, Sierra Mist, Sunkist and Tropicana Lemonade, among others.
The evidence of benzene contamination of soft drinks is coming from many quarters, and it is mounting. On February 15th, Beverage Daily reported that recent tests had shown that some soft drinks contain benzene at levels “above the legal limit for water set by the US and Europe.” According to Beverage Daily, independent tests at a laboratory in New York found benzene levels in a couple of soft drinks contain two-and-a-half and five times the World Health Organization limit for drinking water, which is more permissive than is the U.S. standard.
Then, on March 4th, the Times of London reported that just 100 of the 230 soft drinks tested for benzene met the standard for British water, “with some containing up to eight times the legal limit.”
Of course, benzene exposure is not the only way that soft drinks can harm children’s health. In addition, there is substantial evidence that sugar-sweetened drinks are contributing to the epidemics of childhood obesity and type 2 diabetes.
It is irresponsible to provide to schoolchildren products that are unhealthy and may contain a carcinogen. Please, halt the sale and marketing of soft drinks that contain ascorbic acid and sodium or potassium benzoate, until you can look parents in the eye and assure them that their children will suffer no harm.
Claire L. Barnett, Executive Director, Healthy Schools Network, Inc.
Leon Eisenberg, MD, Professor of Social Medicine Emeritus, Harvard Medical School
Michael F. Jacobson, PhD, Executive Director, Center for Science in the Public Interest
Carden Johnston, MD, FAAP, FRCP, Past President, American Academy of Pediatrics
David L. Katz, MD, MPH, FACPM, FACP, Director, Yale Prevention Research Center
David Ozonoff, MD, MPH, Professor of Environmental Health; Chair Emeritus, Department of Environmental Health, Boston University School of Public Health
Kenneth Rosenman, MD, Professor of Medicine, Chief, Division of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, Michigan State University
Gary Ruskin, Executive Director, Commercial Alert
Vic Strasburger, MD, Professor of Pediatrics, University of New Mexico School of Medicine
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In 1990, the National Soft Drink Association told the FDA about the problem of benzene contamination in soft drinks. The FDA did some testing of benzene levels, but did not make its findings public.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has set its limit on benzene in drinking water at 5 parts per billion (ppb). In its “consumer factsheet” on benzene, the EPA states that “EPA has found benzene to potentially cause the following health effects when people are exposed to it at levels above the MCL [Maximum Contaminant Level – for benzene, 5 ppb] for relatively short periods of time: temporary nervous system disorders, immune system depression, anemia.”
Commercial Alert is a nonprofit organization based in Portland, Oregon. Our mission is to keep the commercial culture within its proper sphere, and to prevent it from exploiting children and subverting the higher values of family, community, environmental integrity and democracy. For more information, see our website at: http://www.commercialalert.org.
For more information about soft drinks in schools, and benzene contamination, see:
A list of soft drinks containing both ascorbic acid and sodium or potassium benzoate is at http://www.commercialalert.org/softdrinklist.pdf.
For background on benzene contamination of soft drinks, see: