FDA Unafraid of Benzene in Soda

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The FDA announced on Tuesday that the possible presence of benzene in soft drinks is not a cause for concern. In a response to a request for information by the Environmental Working Group, the FDA stated that benzene levels in the majority of beverages sampled thus far are either well below the legal limit or below the level of detection.

Benzene forms in soft drinks as a result of a natural reaction between vitamin C and two preservatives that prevent bacterial growth, sodium benzoate and potassium benzoate. Because it occurs naturally, it is not subject to the regulations set in place by the Delaney Clause, which prohibit the use of additives that are known carcinogens. Although benzene in extremely high doses causes leukemia in humans, it occurs as a natural by-product in these beverages and therefore does not qualify as an additive.

We agree that benzene in soda should not be cause for alarm, but it is important to underscore that whether or not it occurs naturally ought to be irrelevant from a regulatory perspective: only whether it is harmful in trace amounts -- and it is not.

The secondary question is this: can your body, when you are drinking a soda, really distinguish between an additive and a substance that is present as a result of a natural process taking place inside the can? If a substance is known to harm humans at the level at which we consume it, it should not be present in our food products whether it is there naturally or artificially. Conversely, if it does not cause cancer in humans at normal levels of consumption, it should be permitted regardless of its source. Currently, adding benzene to soda would be illegal because it is a known carcinogen at high doses -- but the Delaney Clause does not apply (and the FDA allows amounts that are not harmful to humans) because they occur naturally.

This double standard speaks simply to the outdated nature of the Delaney Clause.

Jeff Stier, Esq., is an associate director and Jaclyn Eisenberg a research intern at the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH.org, HealthFactsAndFears.com).