Publix Faces Class-Action Suit Over Benzene in Soda Products

The amount of benzene found in soft drinks has become a growing issue during 2006. Now, Publix Super Markets is about to become well acquainted with the concerns after a Florida woman filed a class-action suit against the company. According to the suit, independent tests have confirmed unsafe levels of benzene in two store-brand sodas, Publix Diet Lemon-Lime and Publix Grape. Heavy exposure to benzene is known to cause cancer.

The benzene problem seems to stem from the combination of benzoate preservatives and citric or ascorbic acid (vitamin C) that is found in many popular carbonated drinks. This combo, aided perhaps by the introduction of light or heat, is subject to a chemical reaction that causes benzene levels to increase. Three large manufacturers–In Zone Brands (maker of Bellywashers), TalkingRain, and Meridian Beverage Company–have already reached settlements over the issue and other manufacturers, including Coca-Cola, Cadbury Schweppes, and PepsiCo, the three largest producers, still face court action related to the benzene problem.

Tim Howard, lawyer for plaintiff Lisbeth Gordon, says, “The formation of benzene is a chemical reaction that can easily be avoided by simple reformulation. Meridian took immediate action when it was told about the potential risk of benzene formation, and that is the obligation of every responsible beverage maker.” Meridian settled last week. In the Publix case, Howard is seeking reparations for breach of warranty and deceptive trade practices; the suit also calls for an injunction against the sale of the beverages pending their reformulation.

The FDA has been monitoring the situation for some time, although public advocates believe very strongly that they haven’t done enough. “In November 2005, FDA received private laboratory results reporting low levels of benzene in a small number of soft drinks that contained benzoate salts (an antimicrobial) and ascorbic acid (vitamin C),” according to the agency. “FDA has no regulatory limits for benzene in beverages other than bottled water, for which FDA uses the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) maximum contaminant level (MCL) of 5 ppb for drinking water as a quality standard.”

In May, the FDA announced that only four of the 100 beverages they tested in subsequent trials had higher than allowed levels of benzene. A month before, they stated outright that “levels of benzene found in soft drinks do not pose a safety concern.” For now, they are trusting industry adjustments and reformulations to take care of the problem.

The carcinogen benzene is also present in the emissions of burning coal and oil, in the air around gas stations, and in the exhaust of automobiles.

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