In response to recent findings by scientists at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and elsewhere that certain soft drinks may contain amounts of the carcinogen benzene above the U.S. legal limit for drinking water, Commercial Alert and public health advocates sent letters today to all U.S. chief state school officers, asking them to stop the sale and marketing of these soft drinks in public schools, until they can be proven safe and free from benzene contamination.
The letter was written and organized by Commercial Alert, a nonprofit organization that protects children and communities from commercialism. The letter follows.
Dear Chief State School Officer:
As you may know, scientists at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and elsewhere have found that some soft drinks sold commonly in the U.S. contain concentrations of benzene above the U.S. legal limit for drinking water.
Benzene is classified as a known human carcinogen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Chronic exposure to benzene is associated with leukemia, aplastic anemia and other blood diseases. Children may be especially sensitive to benzene because their bone marrow cells are highly active.
Accordingly, we urge you and local school officials to cease the sale and marketing of certain soft drinks in public schools until they are shown to be safe and free of the toxic substance benzene.
Soft drink manufacturers are not adding benzene to the drinks directly. Rather, the compound is formed by a reaction of ascorbic acid (vitamin C) and sodium or potassium benzoate (which are used as preservatives)—especially in the presence of light or heat. Soft drinks that contain ascorbic acid and sodium or potassium benzoate include Diet Pepsi Wild Cherry, Fanta Orange, Hawaiian Punch, Mug Root Beer, Pepsi Vanilla, Sierra Mist, Sunkist and Tropicana Lemonade, among others.
The evidence of benzene contamination of soft drinks is coming from many quarters, and it is mounting. On February 15th, Beverage Daily reported that recent tests had shown that some soft drinks contain benzene at levels “above the legal limit for water set by the US and Europe.” According to Beverage Daily, independent tests at a laboratory in New York found benzene levels in a couple of soft drinks contain two-and-a-half and five times the World Health Organization limit for drinking water, which is more permissive than is the U.S. standard.
Then, on March 4th, the Times of London reported that just 100 of the 230 soft drinks tested for benzene met the standard for British water, “with some containing up to eight times the legal limit.”
Of course, benzene exposure is not the only way that soft drinks can harm children’s health. In addition, there is substantial evidence that sugar-sweetened drinks are contributing to the epidemics of childhood obesity and type 2 diabetes.
It is irresponsible to provide to schoolchildren products that are unhealthy and may contain a carcinogen. Please, halt the sale and marketing of soft drinks that contain ascorbic acid and sodium or potassium benzoate, until you can look parents in the eye and assure them that their children will suffer no harm.