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Benzene in Beverages

Michelle Meadows - FDA Consumer magazine

The Food and Drug Administration is working with the beverage industry to ensure that benzene levels in soft drinks and other beverages are as low as possible. Benzene is a chemical used in dyes and detergents, and in some plastics. Its also released into the air from automobile emissions and results from burning coal and oil. Benzene may be produced in soft drinks and other beverages with certain ingredient combinations. High levels of benzene in workplace air have caused cancer in workers.
The FDA has no regulatory limits for benzene in beverages other than bottled water. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has established a maximum contaminant level for benzene of 5 parts per billion (ppb) in drinking water. The FDA has adopted this level for bottled water as a quality standard. Based on results from a recent survey of soft drinks and other beverages conducted by the FDAs Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN), most beverage samples analyzed contained either no detectable benzene or levels below the 5 ppb limit for drinking water, and do not suggest a safety concern, says Judith Kidwell, a consumer safety officer in the CFSANs Office of Food Additive Safety.
How Benzene May Form in Soft Drinks
In 1990, the FDA learned that benzene was present in some soft drinks. The FDA and industry initiated research and discovered that exposure to heat and light can stimulate the formation of low levels of benzene in some beverages that contain both benzoate salts, such as sodium benzoate or potassium benzoate, and vitamin C (ascorbic acid).
Sodium benzoate or potassium benzoate may be added to beverages to prevent the growth of bacteria, yeasts, and molds. Benzoate salts also are naturally present in some fruits and their juices, such as cranberries. Vitamin C may be naturally present in beverages or added to prevent spoilage or to provide additional nutrients.
"The presence of benzoates and vitamin C as ingredients in a product doesnt mean that elevated levels of benzene have formed or will form," Kidwell says.
A Recent Survey
In November 2005, the FDA received private laboratory results reporting low levels of benzene in a small number of soft drinks that contain benzoate preservatives and vitamin C. In response to these findings, the FDA began collecting and analyzing samples of beverages with a focus on products that contain both benzoate and vitamin C.
From the start of the survey in November through April 2006, the FDA tested more than 100 soft drinks and other beverages. Beverage samples were collected from retail stores in Maryland, Virginia, and Michigan. The survey is not a reflection of the distribution of benzene in beverages in the U.S. food supply. The data cover a limited number of products and brands, and limited geographic areas. Even though the data are limited, Kidwell says, the FDA believes that the results indicate that benzene levels are not a safety concern for consumers. In May 2006, the FDA released results of the survey through April 20, 2006.
Almost all the samples analyzed in the CFSANs survey contained either no benzene or levels below 5 ppb. "And benzene levels in hundreds of samples tested by other government agencies and the beverage industry are consistent with CFSANs findings," Kidwell says.
The CFSAN found benzene levels above 5 ppb in five of the beverage products tested: Crystal Light Sunrise Classic Orange, Crush Pineapple, Safeway Select Diet Orange Soda, AquaCal Strawberry Flavored Water Beverage, and Giant Light Cranberry Juice Cocktail.
Additional Actions
The FDA has contacted those firms whose products were found to contain more than 5 ppb benzene in the CFSAN survey. Manufacturers have reformulated the products to reduce or eliminate benzene, and some have sent samples to the CFSAN for analysis. Thus far, the CFSAN has tested a few of the reformulated products provided by the manufacturers and found that benzene levels were less than 1 ppb; additional testing is ongoing.
The International Council of Beverages Associations and the American Beverage Association have developed guidance for all beverage manufacturers on ways to minimize benzene formation.
The FDA will continue to collect and analyze beverage samples for the presence of benzene and will continue to follow up with manufacturers as survey results warrant. "Once the FDA has completed its beverage survey we will determine whether further action is necessary to protect the public health," Kidwell says.
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For More Information
Questions and Answers on Benzene in Beverages
www.cfsan.fda.gov/~dms/benzqa.html


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FDA Consumer magazine
Questions and Answers on the Occurrence of
Benzene in Soft Drinks and Other Beverages
1. What is benzene?
2. Why is benzene a concern?
3. Do the levels of benzene in beverages pose a risk to public health?
4. How does benzene get into beverages?
5. What steps are being taken to reduce or eliminate benzene in beverages?
6. How was the problem identified?
7. How many and what products were found to have excessive levels of benzene?
8. What about results for benzene in beverages reported in FDAs Total Diet Study (TDS)?
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1. What is benzene?
Benzene is a chemical that is released into the air from emissions from automobiles and burning coal and oil. It is also used in the manufacture of a wide range of industrial products, including chemicals, dyes, detergents, and some plastics.
2. Why is benzene a concern?
Benzene is a carcinogen that can cause cancer in humans. It has caused cancer in workers exposed to high levels from workplace air. Based on results from a Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN) survey of almost 200 samples of soft drinks and other beverages tested for benzene conducted from 2005 through May 2007, a small number of products sampled contained more than 5 parts per billion (ppb) of benzene. The manufacturers have reformulated products, if still manufactured, which were identified in the survey as containing greater than 5 ppb benzene. CFSAN tested samples of these reformulated products and found that benzene levels were less than 1.5 ppb. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has established a maximum allowable level (MCL) for benzene in drinking water of 5 ppb. FDA has adopted EPAs MCL for drinking water as an allowable level for bottled water.
3. Do the levels of benzene in beverages pose a risk to public health?
The results of CFSANs survey indicate that the levels of benzene found in beverages to date do not pose a safety concern for consumers. Almost all samples analyzed in our survey contained either no benzene or levels below 5 ppb. Furthermore, benzene levels in hundreds of samples tested by national and international government agencies and the beverage industry are consistent with those found in our survey.
4. How does benzene get into beverages?
Benzene can form at very low levels (ppb level) in some beverages that contain both benzoate salts and ascorbic acid (vitamin C) or erythorbic acid (a closely related substance (isomer) also known as d-ascorbic acid). Exposure to heat and light can stimulate the formation of benzene in some beverages that contain benzoate salts and ascorbic acid (vitamin C). Sodium or potassium benzoate may be added to beverages to inhibit the growth of bacteria, yeasts, and molds. Benzoate salts also are naturally present in some fruits and their juices, such as cranberries, for example. Vitamin C may be present naturally in beverages or added to prevent spoilage or to provide additional nutrients.
5. What steps are being taken to reduce or eliminate benzene in beverages?
FDA is working with the beverage industry to minimize benzene formation in products. For example, FDA has met with industry to determine the factors contributing to benzene formation. FDA has directly contacted those firms whose products were tested and found to contain more than 5 ppb benzene in our survey. Manufacturers have reformulated products to ensure benzene levels are minimized or eliminated. The International Council of Beverages Associations and the American Beverage Association have developed guidance for all beverage manufacturers on ways to minimize benzene formation. FDA will continue its testing program for benzene in soft drinks and other beverages to monitor levels and will inform the public and manufacturers as new data become available.
6. How was the problem identified?
FDA first became aware that benzene was present in some soft drinks in 1990. At that time, the soft drink industry informed the agency that benzene could form at low levels in some beverages that contained both benzoate salts and ascorbic acid. FDA and the beverage industry initiated research at that time to identify factors contributing to benzene formation. This research found that elevated temperature and light can stimulate benzene formation in the presence of benzoate salts and ascorbic acid. As a result of these findings, many manufacturers reformulated their products to reduce or eliminate benzene formation.
In November 2005, FDA received reports that benzene had been detected at low levels in some soft drinks containing benzoate salts and ascorbic acid. CFSAN immediately initiated a survey of benzene levels in soft drinks and other beverages. The vast majority of the beverages sampled to date (including those containing both benzoate salts and ascorbic acid) contained either no detectable benzene or levels well below the 5 ppb EPA MCL for benzene in drinking water.
7. How many and what products were found to have excessive levels of benzene?
To date, FDA has tested almost 200 soft drink and other beverages in the CFSAN survey. Benzene above 5 ppb was found in a total of ten products. Benzene above 5 ppb was found in nine of the beverage products that contain both added benzoate salts and ascorbic acid. FDA also found benzene above 5 ppb in one cranberry juice beverage with added ascorbic acid but no added benzoates (cranberries contain natural benzoates). The manufacturers have reformulated products, if still manufactured, which were identified in the survey as containing greater than 5 ppb benzene. CFSAN tested samples of these reformulated products and found that benzene levels were less than 1.5 ppb. See also Data on Benzene in Soft Drinks and Other Beverages, including product names and benzene levels.
8. What about results for benzene in beverages reported in FDAs Total Diet Study (TDS)?
FDAs TDS is an ongoing FDA program that determines levels of various contaminants and nutrients in a broad variety of foods. As was previously reported by the press, FDAs TDS results from 1995 to 2001 included benzene levels in some beverages that were elevated compared with results from CFSANs survey and other recent domestic and international studies. In 2006, the FDA conducted an evaluation1 of the reliability of the TDS benzene results. This evaluation concluded that the TDS procedure used to analyze benzene levels can generate benzene in beverages containing benzoate preservatives. There was also evidence of a source of benzene contamination in the TDS laboratory. Although the FDA evaluation focused on benzene in beverages, these findings also raise questions about the reliability of the method for benzene in solid foods. Because the TDS benzene results appeared to be unreliable, FDA scientists recommend that the benzene data be viewed with great caution while FDA considers removing TDS benzene data from the TDS website. There is no evidence of problems with other TDS data.