Why You May Be Drinking Soda That Contains a Dangerous Flame Retardant Banned in Europe and Japan
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MARIETTA, Ga. – It's Monday night at the Battle & Brew, a gamer hangout in this Atlanta suburb. The crowd is slumping in chairs, ears entombed in headphones, eyes locked on flat-screen monitors and minds lost in tonight’s video game of choice: "The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim."
To help stay alert all night, each man has an open can of "gamer fuel" inches from his keyboard. "I've seen some of these dudes plow through six sodas in six hours," said Brian Smawley, a regular at the gamer bar.
Gamers say they chug their fuel for the sugar and caffeine, but drinkers of Mountain Dew and some other citrus-flavored drinks are also getting a dose of a synthetic chemical called brominated vegetable oil, or BVO.
Patented by chemical companies as a flame retardant, and banned in food throughout Europe and Japan, BVO has been added to sodas for decades in North America. Now some scientists have a renewed interest in this little-known ingredient, found in 10 percent of sodas in the United States.
After a few extreme soda binges — not too far from what many gamers regularly consume – a few patients have needed medical attention for skin lesions, memory loss and nerve disorders, all symptoms of overexposure to bromine. Other studies suggest that BVO could be building up in human tissues, just like other brominated compounds such as flame retardants. In mouse studies, big doses caused reproductive and behavioral problems.
Reports from an industry group helped the U.S. Food and Drug Administration establish in 1977 what it considers a safe limit for BVO in sodas. But some scientists say that limit is based on thin, outdated data, so they insist that the chemical deserves a fresh look.
"Aside from these reports, the scientific data is scarce," said Walter Vetter, a food chemist at Germany's University of Hohenheim and author of a recent, but unpublished, study on BVO in European soda imports.
Flame retardant soda?
The next time you grab a Mountain Dew, Squirt, Fanta Orange, Sunkist Pineapple, Gatorade Thirst Quencher Orange, Powerade Strawberry Lemonade or Fresca Original Citrus, take a look at the drink's ingredients. In Mountain Dew, brominated vegetable oil is listed next-to-last, between disodium EDTA and Yellow 5. These are just a sampling of drinks with BVO listed in their ingredients, which is required by the FDA. The most popular sodas – Coca-Cola and Pepsi – do not contain BVO.
You don't have to be a gamer to drink these fruit-flavored sodas. In the United States, 85 percent of kids drink a beverage containing sugar or artificial sweetener at least once per week, according to a studypublished last month. Sodas are the largest source of calories for teenagers between the ages of 14 to 18, according to a National Cancer Institute study. For adults, soda, energy and sports drinks are the fourth largest source of calories, a federal study found.
Hold a bottle of Mountain Dew to a light. It's cloudy. Brominated vegetable oil creates the cloudy look by keeping the fruity flavor mixed into the drink. Without an emulsifier such as BVO, the flavoring would float to the surface. The FDA limits the use of BVO to 15 parts per million in fruit-flavored beverages.
Brominated vegetable oil, which is derived from soybean or corn, contains bromine atoms, which weigh down the citrus flavoring so it mixes with sugar water, or in the case of flame retardants, slows down chemical reactions that cause a fire.
Brominated flame retardants lately are under intense scrutiny because research has shown that they are building up in people’s bodies, including breast milk, around the world. Designed to slow the spread of flames, they are added to polystyrene foam cushions used in upholstered furniture and children's products, as well as plastics used in electronics. Research in animals as well as some human studies have found links to impaired neurological development, reduced fertility, early onset of puberty and altered thyroid hormones.