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Benzene Contamination of Soft Drinks
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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: April 4, 2006 http://www.ewg.org/issues/toxics/20060404/index.php
Contact: EWG Public Affairs Staff, (202) 667-6982

FDA Data Undercut Public Safety Assurances by Top Agency Official

Tests Found High Benzene Contamination of Diet Soda -
79 Percent of Samples Above Drinking Water Limit

(WASHINGTON, April 4) - A computer investigation by Environmental Working Group (EWG) has uncovered results from a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) testing program that contradict blanket safety assurances about benzene contamination in soft drinks made by a top agency official on March 21, 2006. FDA's data show that 79 percent of diet soda samples tested over a six-year period from 1995 through 2001 were contaminated with benzene at levels above the federal limit for benzene in tap water.

The FDA test results, buried deep within an obscure FDA food testing program called the Total Diet Study, were posted on EWG's Web site, www.ewg.org, just days after a top FDA official assured the public that there was no threat from the presence of the toxic chemical in soft drinks. This weekend, Great Britain's public health agency pulled some soft drink products from store shelves because of benzene contamination.

On March 28, 2006, the Associated Press published a national consumer story, "No Safety Concerns With Soda Benzene Tests," based in part on assertions by Robert E. Brackett, director of FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, that benzene levels in beverages "do not suggest a safety concern." Brackett said the agency's 1993 test results "showed that benzene was detected at insignificant levels" in soft drinks.

But more recent FDA test results from 1995 to 2001, available to Brackett at the time, reveal a much different contamination picture for diet soda and other popular drink products.

Between 1995 and 2001, FDA tested 24 samples of diet soda for benzene in its Total Diet Study: Nineteen (79 percent) were contaminated with benzene above the federal tap water standard of 5 parts per billion (ppb). The average benzene level was 19 ppb, nearly four times the tap water standard. The maximum detection was 55 ppb, 11 times the tap water limit. Each test result is from a composite of three individual soda purchases in three different cities that are blended together to make one sample.

No brands or manufacturers were identified in FDA's test results.

Test results for other drinks also revealed the presence of highly elevated benzene levels. One cola drink the FDA tested was contaminated at 138 ppb, 27 times the 5 ppb tap water limit, and a fruit drink had 95 ppb. Orange and grapefruit juice also had benzene at levels well above FDA's 5 ppb level of concern.

"These results confirm our suspicions that there are highly elevated benzene levels in some very popular drinks," said Richard Wiles, EWG's senior vice president. "Once again, FDA has sided with big food companies and misled consumers about the problem of benzene in beverages, withholding data and issuing public reassurances that are contradicted by their own test results."

This past weekend, British authorities ordered four brands of sodas pulled from shelves because of benzene contamination. In contrast to the FDA's policy of withholding test results from the public, "The [British Food Standards Agency] rushed out results yesterday of tests on 149 drinks including a range of fruit juice, iced tea, squash, fizzy and low-sugar drinks," according to an April 1, 2006 article in The Times of London.

"This is an easy problem to fix," Wiles said. "FDA should do what British food safety officials did: Disclose the test results that taxpayers have paid for. Tell consumers which products contain high levels of benzene. Tell consumers the circumstances under which benzene is more likely to be formed - such as prolonged storage under warm conditions.

"People are still buying and drinking diet beverages in England. People are still consuming sodas and juices in the UK as they see fit. They just happen to know, because their government told them, which brands to avoid until those products no longer contain an unacceptable level of benzene, a known human carcinogen."

Benzene's toxicity is not in dispute. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), "Benzene is carcinogenic to humans and no safe level of exposure can be recommended." It is directly linked to leukemia and crosses the placenta to the fetus at levels greater than or equal to the amount in the mother's blood. The chemical is frequently detected in the food supply as a result of industrial pollution, making additional and avoidable exposures of even greater concern.

Wiles noted that several states have adopted tougher standards for benzene in tap water. Tap water with benzene above 5 ppb would be illegal and would not be allowed for consumption under federal law. In fact, bottled water with greater than 5 ppb benzene could not be sold. However, diet soda with as much or more benzene is perfectly legal. New Jersey allows just 1 ppb of benzene in tap water, and California has a drinking water standard that is 33 times more protective than the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) at 0.15 ppb.

Beyond diet soda, the data appear to provide the basis for additional testing of some products, and consumer advice for others, but to date FDA has done neither. For example:

  • FDA reports a high of 95 ppb benzene in a powdered fruit drink, but then reports results from only one additional sample, hardly a sufficient basis to conclude that levels in powdered drinks are below 5 ppb.
  • The agency also reports a severely elevated 138 ppb result for non-diet cola, which earlier FDA studies indicate may be the result of how the product was transported and stored.

"There is probably an innocent explanation for FDA's failure to make this data public, but consumers would sure like to hear what it is," Wiles said.

Started in 1961, the Total Diet Study was originally designed to monitor the food supply for the presence of radioactive nuclear fallout from weapons testing. Since then it has been expanded to include a detailed picture of chemical contamination in the American food supply.

In order to create a complete picture of overall contamination of the food supply, FDA employees go quarterly to supermarkets, grocery stores and fast food restaurants in three different cities in one of four regions - West, North Central, South and Northeast - and purchase foods from 280 different food categories. Each region is sampled at least once a year. The samples are then express shipped refrigerated to a central FDA lab where the samples for each food category from the three cities are combined and prepared as if a consumer were going to eat them. Sodas purchased in the three cities within each region are combined into one sample, while powdered juices and concentrates are made into juice.

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