In a spot check performed several months ago, Health Canada found a known carcinogen in roughly 20% of the soft drinks and other beverages purchased at an Ottawa, Ontario grocery store. The level of the substance in four of the items actually exceeded the national drinking water standard by four-and-a-half times. Though these results come from Canada, they are similar to results from a U.S. study on beverages done last year. In fact, that’s what provoked Health Canada to look into it.
The substance in question is called “benzene,” which starts forming when vitamin C reacts with preservatives in the drink (either sodium-based or potassium-based) that the manufacturers use in order to prevent bacteria growth.
For years, benzene has been a concern for public health after being connected to a raised risk of leukemia, lymphoma, lung cancer, and bladder cancer. In Canada, health officials consider it so dangerous that community drinking water cannot have higher than five parts per billion. (To put this in perspective, a “part per billion” is a very small amount, similar to the ratio of one second over 32 years.) That high “Kool-Aid” concentration had 23 parts per billion.
The drink with the greatest benzene concentrations was Kool-Aid “Jammers” tropical punch. Another Kool-Aid flavor was about three times the acceptable levels. Others included a margarita mix, other cocktail drinks, ginger ale, and club soda. The Kool-Aid products, produced by Kraft Canada, were most alarming because they are consumed by children the most — for that reason Health Canada made them reformulate the products immediately.
Governments in the U.S. and Canada have known about benzene accumulating in soft drinks since early last decade. But at the time, the drink makers told the government they would handle it. To this day, there is no monitoring of any of the new beverages that hit the market. Decisions regarding benzene levels are left up to drink companies, and all we can do is hope they act responsibly.
The new information reveals that benzene is still kicking around. In the past 10 months or so, studies done by officials in Canada, the U.S., and Britain have discovered the carcinogen to be present in amounts that are higher than acceptable in commonly consumed soft drinks.
Other tidbits on benzene include the following: — Benzene was discovered in 1825 when a scientist isolated it from oil to form a chemical. — Produced during combustion of substances rich in carbon; also occurs naturally in volcanoes, cigarette smoke, and forest fires. — In the 1800s and early 1900s it was used in aftershave and as a means to decaffeinate coffee. — We now know that it is an aggressive cancer-causing chemical. — In 1993, a professor in New York found for the first time that sodium benzoate and vitamin C in soft drinks could react and create benzene.