EWG Letter to the FDA Re: Benzene

February 28, 2006

Andrew C. von Eschenbach, M.D.
Acting Commissioner of Food and Drugs
U.S. Food and Drug Administration
5600 Fishers Lane
Rockville, MD 20857

Dear Dr. von Eschenbach:

We have recently become aware of the fact that in 1990, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) learned that popular soft drinks contained two types of ingredients, ascorbic acid (Vitamin C) and benzoate preservatives (sodium benzoate and potassium benzoate), which can combine to form the potent carcinogen benzene, and that some soft drinks contained benzene at levels higher than safe limits set for drinking water. In spite of this knowledge and the clear health threat presented by benzene in popular beverages, the agency did not inform the public of its findings. Instead, the Agency suppressed the information and asked soft drink manufacturers to voluntarily solve the problem.

Two American news outlets—Beverage Technology & Markets and WJLA-TV in Washington, DC—have reported recently that the FDA is now testing soft drinks, and to date has found that approximately 20 different products tested contain benzene, some with four times more benzene than the federal government considers safe in tap water.

On February 24 and February 27, 2006, EWG staff purchased the items listed below at four different major national retail outlets and found that they all contain the ingredients that can form benzene. This is clearly not a comprehensive list, but it is cause for serious concern. The beverage industry appears to have flagrantly ignored the 1990 agreement to eliminate chemical combinations that can form benzene in their products and the FDA, by all accounts, has done nothing about it.

We urge the agency to issue an immediate warning to the public that foods and beverages containing ascorbic acid and benzoate preservatives are very likely to be contaminated with benzene, and to release the results of its testing for this contaminant to the public and the press.

The agency appears to be repeating the same mistakes it made 15 years ago when it decided not to inform the public about this serious health risk, and let the industry "solve" it voluntarily. The industry clearly has not remedied the problem, yet the FDA again has chosen to hide this information from the public.

In the past 15 years there has been an enormous surge in soda and juice consumption, and a corresponding decline in the consumption of water. Children drink significantly more of the products potentially contaminated with benzene than they did 15 years ago. If drinking water is found to contain 5 parts per billion (ppb) of benzene, authorities are required to notify the public and fix the problem as quickly as possible. In stark contrast, the FDA has apparently found benzene at 20 ppb in soft drinks, but has chosen not to tell the public and not to fix the problem.

The FDA must empower the public to avoid this risk and stop shielding the beverage industry from hypothetical financial risks. Some major manufacturers appear to have taken action to eliminate this ingredient mixture when originally asked to do so. Presumably, when the public finds out that others have not, these manufacturers will make the necessary changes to their products as well.

We look forward to your response.


Richard Wiles
Senior Vice President

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