Sunday, December 03, 2006

Controversial Carcinogen Benzene Cover-Up By FDA, Soft Drink Industry

There's some very disturbing health news that should especially concern dieters who enjoy drinking diet soft drinks. This column examines recently released documents concerning the Cadbury Schweppes company and their popular Diet Orange Crush drink.

You may recall the recent public backlash over the cancer-causing benzene being found in Perrier water which has caused sales of this product to plummet after 162 million bottles were pulled from the shelves. Now, new documents were recently released that reveal the exact same thing was discovered in 1990 when Cadbury found benzene levels in their Diet Orange Crush that were ten times higher than what was found in Perrier and exponentially more than the FDA was supposed to allow at the time. Cadbury quietly removed the drink voluntarily in five regions as a result of finding these benzene levels.

But there was no accountability in place to punish Cadbury like there was for Perrier over the serious nature of this violation and it is a problem that very likely still exists today, concerned industry observers contend. For the record, the Diet Orange Crush contained 36 and 52 parts per billion (ppb) benzene in two samples taken by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in late 1990 when the product was pulled and another preliminary sample showed as high as 180 ppb benzene. Compare this to the 11-18 ppb benzene found in Perrier water and you can see why some are concerned Cadbury got off too easy 16 years ago.

While the Perrier benzene issue was from a contaminated carbon dioxide problem, the one with the Diet Orange Crush in 1990 had to do with the combination of two very common ingredients in many soft drinks that are on store shelves today--sodium benzoates and citric or ascorbic acid. While Cadbury has said their drinks have been reformulated since the FDA discovered these ingredients raise the benzene levels above the maximum 5 ppb in those products, the truth of the matter is that benzene is STILL a major problem because so many companies still use them in tandum.

The FDA and the soda manufacturers say they are confident the benzene levels in their products are a neglible health concern to the consumer, but the lingering questions still remain since sodium benzoate and citric or ascorbic acid is in a lot of popular beverage products, including Kraft's popular Crystal Light drink mixes and others that are commonly used by diets avoiding sugar and health-conscious consumers.

One of the issues concerning benzene levels in these beverages is that any added exposure to heat and light can cause a rapid increase in its widespread development. While short-term consumption of these higher levels of benzene in drinks may not pose a measurable risk of getting cancer to the people drinking them, the danger is in those people who consume larger quantities of them over longer periods of time.

But unlike Perrier, the FDA kept silent about the benzene issue with Cadbury and simply swept it under the rug despite evidence that the benzene levels had not been reduced below the recommended levels. One anonymous ex-FDA official was quoted as saying this is "embarrassing" that the government agency was so flippant about something that could be so potentially hazardous to public health just to protect the interests of the manufacturers.

“Big companies are very powerful," the former FDA official told "If you're a regulator with a tight budget, it could have been one of those closets with skeletons in that you don't want to open.”

Benzene is an issue that has gotten the attention of the International Council of Beverages Association which earlier this year distributed an industry-wide guidance document to bring awareness and education to the soft drink companies. They are hoping this will cut down on the benzene levels before a larger public health issue arises.

With the revelation of the apparent public cover-up by the FDA and Cadbury in 1990 about the presence of benzene in their products, this issue has been brought to the forefront at an important time, according to a former Cadbury scientist who is leading the efforts to tell the world about what he knows.

“It's outrageous that when a known carcinogen such as benzene was found in popular USA soft drinks, neither the beverage industry or FDA notified consumers,” he exclaimed.

You can read more about this issue by perusing through these papers compiled by attorney Ross E. Getman who is representing the public interests of those seeking to remove benzene from soft drinks in the United States.

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