The FDA says that there is no health risk from benzene levels in soft drinks, based on an FDA survey of more than 100 soft drinks and other beverages.

“The vast majority of the products we were looking at had very, very low or not detectable levels of benzene, but there were a very few that had levels that were higher,” Laura Tarantino, MD, director of the FDA’s Office of Food Additive Safety, told reporters in a teleconference.

Five products had higher levels of benzene than the amount permitted in drinking water -- at least, in some of the lots that were tested. Those drinks were Safeway Select Diet Orange, Crush Pineapple, AquaCal Strawberry Flavored Water Beverage, Crystal Light Sunrise Classic Orange, and Giant Light Cranberry Juice Cocktail.

The FDA contacted the makers of the drinks that showed higher benzene levels. All of those companies have reformulated and reintroduced those products or are currently doing so, says Tarantino.

About Benzene

Benzene is a chemical that can cause cancer in humans. The FDA doesn’t have a regulatory limit on benzene in soft drinks and other beverages, except for bottled water, which goes by an upper limit of five parts per billion (ppb), the limit set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for drinking water.

Benzene is released into the air from automobile emissions and burning coal and oil. It is used in producing other chemicals, dyes, detergents, and some plastics.

Benzene can form at “very low levels,” notes the FDA’s web site, in some beverages that contain both benzoate salts and ascorbic acid (vitamin C). Exposure to heat and light can stimulate the formation of benzene in those drinks.

FDA: No Benzene Desirable

Tarantino points out that in the FDA’s survey, benzene levels varied from lot to lot of some drinks and were affected by storage conditions, temperature, and other factors.

For instance, one lot of a drink had about 79 ppb of benzene, while another lot of the same drink had 15 ppb of benzene, according to data posted on the FDA’s web site.

When asked if drinking a soda containing 79 ppb of benzene poses a risk to consumers, Tarantino replied, “No… this is likely an occasional exposure, not a chronic exposure. Obviously, no benzene is something that anyone wants to have, but the amount of benzene that they’re getting in the soda is very, very small compared to the benzene you’re exposed to every day from environmental sources of benzene.”

Environmental Group’s Response

The Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit organization that has been calling attention to benzene in soft drinks, issued a statement in response to the FDA’s findings.

"FDA's test results confirm that there is a serious problem with benzene in soda and juices," says Richard Wiles, senior vice president at Environmental Working Group, in the statement.

“There is no excuse for deliberately putting chemicals that form high levels of potent cancer-causing benzene in popular drinks," Wiles says. "This is a wake-up call for the beverage industry. It is time to get benzene-forming ingredients out of sodas and juices.”

FDA’s Survey

The survey started in November 2005. The data Tarantino spoke about ran through April 20, 2006.

“Late last year we got reports that in certain soft drinks there was the possibility of forming benzene,” Tarantino says. “At the time we immediately started a survey of beverages and soft drinks to do our own testing and see what was out there and in these products.”

The survey focused on drinks that include benzoates and ascorbic acid, as those were at higher risk for benzene formation.

The FDA will update its data as tests continue, Tarantino says.

SOURCES: Laura Tarantino, MD, director, Office of Food Additive and Safety, FDA. FDA: “Data on Benzene in Soft Drinks and Other Beverages. FDA: “Questions and Answers on the Occurrence of Benzene in Soft Drinks and Other Beverages.” Associated Press.