Why You May Be Drinking Soda That Contains a Dangerous Flame Retardant Banned in Europe and Japan
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As a condition of interim approval, the industry group submitted additional safety studies to the FDA.
The FDA determined that a 2-year feeding study in pigs established a no-effect level of 1,200 ppm. A 2-year feeding study in beagle dogs also was conducted. Although there were concerns about quality control with that particular study, Karas said, no cardiovascular effects were observed in the dogs fed BVO at levels as high as 3,600 ppm for two years. After an independent audit of the data to address the quality concerns, the FDA decided to allow BVO in fruit-flavored beverages."The finding from these studies supported the safety of BVO in beverages at a level of 15 ppm in fruit-flavored beverages," Karas said. "Its use as a flame retardant does not preclude its use as a food ingredient so long as the food use is safe."
More than 30 years later, brominated vegetable oil's approval status is still listed as interim. Changing the status would be costly and "is not a public health priority for the agency at this time," Karas said.
Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, was involved with the petition to remove BVO from the "safe" list in 1970. He said it's time for the FDA to make a decision, one way or the other.
"Is it harmful at the amounts consumed? Probably not," Jacobson said. "But it would be nice if the FDA did a thorough review of the literature and finalized an approval or a ban."
A safer switch?
BVO has seeped into Europe, mostly forbidden territory for this additive, according to an analysis of imported sodas presented at an international symposium on halogenated persistent organic pollutants in 2010.
"We found products with no label although BVO was present in the soda," said Vetter, lead author of the study.
He said soda makers in North America could easily replace BVO with alternatives such as hydrocolloids – chemicals that are used in many sodas in Europe. Natural hydrocolloids form small droplets on water into which non-water soluble compounds can be stored and stabilized for as long as necessary. They are almost exclusively natural products, Vetter said.
Barnes, of the Dr. Pepper Snapple Group, said that BVO and hydrocolloids "do not provide the same functionality and cannot be substituted for one another."
Vetter disagreed, saying that countries in Europe and elsewhere have used natural hydrocolloids for decades in the soda brands that rely on BVO in North America.
"There are many options to substitute BVO with safe chemicals," Vetter said. "I am not aware of significant disadvantages of BVO over hydrocolloids or vice versa."
With natural alternatives already in use in other countries, why not switch in North America too?
Wim Thielemans, a chemical engineer at the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom, said since the alternatives are already used in Europe "their performance must be acceptable, if not comparable, to the U.S.-used brominated systems." That means "the main driver for not replacing them may be cost," he said.
"It is a North American problem," Vetter added. "In the E.U., BVO will never be permitted."
Brett Israel is a researcher, writer and former intern at Environmental Health News.