Are Some Sodas’Chemicals Dangerous?

January 19, 2007

When ascorbic acid and sodium benzoate are combined, as they often are in sodas, they together form benzene, a toxic flammable fuel. This is now well known in the United States, but today I bought a Marimbo fruit soda and discovered the combination on the label. It is bottled here. There are enough inferior products sold here – buyer beware – but this one seems more serious to me. Perhaps an analysis of ingredients of the various frescos containing these two innocent and frequently used chemicals is overdue; for the time being, read the label – too many of these drinks are going down the gullets of very small people.

Molly Margulies

Santa Cruz, Guanacaste

According to various representatives at Florida Ice & Farm Co. S.A., which distributed Marimbo, the drink is no longer on the market. Despite multiple messages left with the company’s Drinks Department, however, we could not find out why.

The Tico Times, did find the same combination of chemicals you mention in orange-flavored Mirinda soda, bottled in Costa Rica. It is also true that ascorbic acid and sodium benzoate sometimes produce benzene.

“Benzene, a carcinogen, is found in the environment from natural and manmade sources,” the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said in a statement April 13, available on the FDA’s Web page on benzene. “In November 2005, FDA received reports that benzene had been detected at low levels in some soft drinks containing benzoate salts (an antimicrobial agent) and ascorbic acid (Vitamin C), particularly under certain conditions of storage, shelf life and handling.”

A subsequent study of 100 sample sodas by the FDA (not including Mirinda or Marimbo) found that “the vast majority” had either no detectable levels of benzene, or levels “well below” the U.S. water standard of five parts per billion (ppb) and concluding the “levels of benzene found in soft drinks do not pose a safety concern.” However, 10 sodas were above limit, and two exceeded it by as much as 17 times the 5 ppb.

Other studies have been less assuring. The consumer watchdog group Environmental Working Group points to an earlier FDA study, conducted between 1995 and 2001, that found 79% of “low-calorie cola carbonated beverages” had benzene at levels of more than 5 bpp, and elevated levels were also found in many juices and fruit drinks.

The United Kingdom’s Times Online reported April 1 that the British Food Standards Agency pulled four different sodas from shelves in Britain because of high levels of benzene, which has been linked to leukemia and other forms of cancer, and had found levels above drinking water standards in 22 other brands.

The Tico Times recently tested a bottle of orange Mirinda at the University of Costa Rica’s Industry Service Unit Laboratory, a part of the ChemistrySchool, for benzene. The soda was left unopened on a desk that received indirect sunlight for nearly a month before it was submitted to the lab, as studies have shown exposure to sunlight can make the formation of benzene more likely.

The results of the analysis were negative. The lab’s report said it found no traces of benzene, and could detect as little as 3 ppb.

Dr. Marielos Morales, with the Registration and Control Department of the Public Health Ministry, said that Costa Rica does not currently test drinks for benzene because the issue had never been brought to her attention. Morales, however, told The Tico Times she would look into the matter.

For more information, consult the FDA’s Web page on benzene, http://www.cfsan.fda.gov/~dms/benzdata.html, and the Environmental WorkGroup’s information on benzene, http://www.ewg.org/issues/siteindex/issues.php?issueid=5035.

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