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Why You May Be Drinking Soda That Contains a Dangerous Flame Retardant Banned in Europe and Japan

Some soda drinkers may be getting a dose of a synthetic chemical called brominated vegetable oil, or BVO.

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Epic binges

On MMO nights at the Battle & Brew, some gamers play 12 straight hours. In these Massively Multiplayer Online games, thousands of players from around the world compete. During these epic battles, a soda every hour is not uncommon. A gamer chugging a 20-ounce bottle of soda every hour will finish 3.5 liters in six hours.

"They're just sitting for 12 hours, just pounding sodas," Smawley said.

Virtually every teen in America plays video games, according to the Pew Research Center. The $110-billion-a-year soft drink industry and the $74-billion-a-year video game industry have noticed. Activision, the makers of "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3," the latest edition in this popular video game series, paired with Mountain Dew in a promotion that rewards gamers with bonus points for drinking more Mountain Dew.

In 1997, emergency room doctors at University of California, Davis  reported a patient with severe bromine intoxication from drinking two to four liters of orange soda every day. He developed headaches, fatigue, ataxia (loss of muscle coordination) and memory loss.

In a 2003  case reported in Ohio, a 63-year-old man developed ulcers on his swollen hands after drinking eight liters of Red Rudy Squirt every day for several months. The man was diagnosed with bromoderma, a rare skin hypersensitivity to bromine exposure. The patient quit drinking the brominated soft drink and months later recovered.

Reactions this severe may not be a concern in the general population, the study’s doctors said.

"Any normal level of consumption of BVO would not cause any health problems — except the risk of diabetes and obesity from drinking that much sugar water," said Zane Horowitz, medical director of the Oregon Poison Center and author of the 1997 case study.

But in the gamer scene, a normal level of consumption is not normal. Everyone, it seems, knows someone habitually needing a fuel fix, and consuming enough to up his or her risk.

"I've seen hard core guys, after every game they'll just grab another one," said Sean Hyatt, the assistant manager at the Battle & Brew.

And it's not just the "stinkies" – Smawley's derogatory term for the stereotypical gamer slobs – who pound gamer fuel. Vorhees, of the Cincinnati children's hospital, said his son stays up all night when playing a new game with his friends.

"They use Mountain Dew specifically as a beverage to keep them awake – and they hardly eat anything," Vorhees said.

When a person doesn't eat during one of these binges, his or her body is absorbing the entire beverage. It's even worse in kids, Vorhees said, because they have less body mass.

"In kids, the total dosage effect tends to be greater," Vorhees said. "I actually think there are people that get these high exposures."

Banned bromine returns

Based on data from the early studies, the FDA yanked brominated vegetable oil from its Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) list for flavor additives in 1970, said Douglas Karas, a spokesman for the FDA. BVO bounced back after studies from an industry group from 1971 to 1974 demonstrated a level of safety.

The Flavor Extract Manufacturers’ Association petitioned the FDA to get BVO back in fruit-flavored beverages, this time as a stabilizer, which is its role today. After evaluating the petition and other data, the FDA in 1977 approved the interim use of BVO at 15 ppm in fruit-flavored beverages, pending the outcome of additional studies.

"This decision was based on the highest No Observed Effect Levels from the existing safety studies and the estimated daily intake," Karas said in an email. "Although there were doses that showed adverse effects in the animal studies, there also were lower doses in which there were no adverse effects observed."

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