Dramatic newspaper headlines, such as 'soft drink cancer link' and 'soft drinks have high level of cancer chemical' screamed out from national newspapers in March when benzene was discovered in a number of products. Benzene, which is present in pollutants such as cigarette smoke and car exhaust fumes, has been linked to leukaemia and other cancers of the blood.
The Food Standards Agency embarked on its own investigation and a month later recalled four products that had been found to have benzene levels above the World Health Organisation's guidelines for drinking water. Another 38 of the 150 samples it tested contained one to 10 parts per billion of the chemical, which is within the WHO guidelines, and 107 contained no detectable benzene.
While the FSA has stressed that people should not be alarmed, stating that a person would need to drink more than 20 litres of a drink containing benzene at 10 parts per billion just to equal the amount of benzene they could inhale from city air in one day, it does want to see the ingredient removed from soft drinks altogether.
"The levels of benzene reported in this survey will only have a negligible impact on people's overall exposure to benzene and so any additional risk to health is, therefore, likely to be minimal," says FSA director of food safety Dr Andrew Wadge. "These results show that it is technologically possible to produce soft drinks without detectable traces of benzene. This is what we want all manufacturers to do."
Technologically possible, yes, but not easy, according to many within the industry. Benzene is formed when sodium benzoate, which is used to kill off bacteria in soft drinks and prevent the growth of moulds, reacts with vitamin C. The former is naturally present in some fruits and the latter in most.
British Soft Drinks Association public affairs manager Richard Laming adds that, while the industry is certain that its drinks are safe, it is responding to the FSA's challenge. "Technical experts from soft drinks companies are meeting to share information and knowledge during the next few months in order to see what else can be done," he says.
Focus on Soft Drinks (May 2006)