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Benzene in flavoured beverages

(April 2013)

Benzene is a common industrial chemical used in manufacturing plastics and some types of rubbers, detergents, drugs, and pesticides. Natural sources of benzene include volcanoes and forest fires. It is also found in crude oil, petrol and cigarette smoke. Benzene may also be found in non-alcoholic beverages including soft drinks at very low levels.

Why is benzene in some beverages?

Benzene can form at very low levels in beverages that contain both ascorbic acid (vitamin C) and sodium benzoate. Ascorbic acid occurs naturally in fruit and juices and may also be added as an antioxidant, while sodium benzoate is added to prevent spoilage. Low levels of benzene can be formed due to chemical reactions of these substances. 

What is the beverage industry doing to reduce benzene formation?

In 2006 independent testing in the United States of non-alcoholic beverages found levels of benzene 2-5 times the World Health Organization (WHO) water quality guideline level of 10 parts per billion (ppb or 0.01 milligrams per litre). This was the first public reporting of the presence of benzene in beverages. 

The non-alcoholic beverage industry world-wide, including Australia and New Zealand, worked hard to identify causes of benzene formation and solutions to limit and prevent its formation.

The International Council of Beverages Associations (ICBA) developed a Guidance Document to Mitigate the Potential for Benzene Formation in Beverages and this has been made available to all Australian and New Zealand beverage manufacturers. This document provides industry with strategies to reduce the formation of benzene. The four key recommendations are: Review, Test, Reformulate and Monitor. The Australian Beverages Council Limited (Beverages Council) (many of their members have businesses in New Zealand) requires that their members take steps to reduce the formation of benzene in their products.

What has been achieved?

Since the public reporting of benzene levels found in non-alcoholic beverages in 2006 the Beverages Council has committed to ensuring their members’ products do not contain high levels of benzene. The Beverages Council uses half of the WHO water quality guideline, being 5 parts per billion, as an action limit for their members. Companies with products with benzene levels greater than the action level are contacted by the Beverages Council to take appropriate action to reduce its formation.

Since 2007 the Beverages Council provided reports to FSANZ of benzene levels in at-risk drinks from both their members and non-members. These results have shown improvements in the numbers of products not exceeding the action level as well as a reduction in the maximum benzene concentration analysed. The summary of these results are reported in Table 1.

 
Table 1:   Number of products exceeding the Beverages Council (BC) benzene action level (5 ppb) in at risk non-alcoholic beverages from 2007-2011

 

Year
No. of products exceeding action level
Maximum concentration of samples (ppb)b
BC member samplesa
Non-BC member samplesa
2007
0 (228)
6 (20)
31
2008
8 (139)
0 (4)
18
2009
0 (121)
1 (10)
17
2010
3 (145)
1 (6)
5.9
2011
0 (94)
0 (6)
4.3

 

a: Numbers in brackets are the total number of samples tested
b: Concentration in parts per billion
 

Due to the recent results showing low levels in at-risk non-alcoholic beverages, FSANZ has agreed that the Beverages Council and members are no longer required to provide such reports from 2013. However, the Beverages Council will continue in its commitment to ensure its members use appropriate strategies to ensure benzene formation is kept as low as practicable. To that end the Beverages Council and its members will have in place an ongoing monitoring and surveillance program focused on benzene levels. 

How am I exposed to benzene?

Exposure to benzene from beverages is minor compared to total benzene exposure from other sources (see Table 2 below) and so the health risk is very low. For example, the UK Food Standards Agency says people would need to drink more than 20 litres of a drink containing benzene at the WHO water quality guideline level to equal the amount of benzene you would breathe from city air in a day.

Table 2:   Exposure to benzene categorised by activity and media

Source
Activity/media
Exposure
Reference
Air
Inhalation exposure
220 µ g (micrograms)/day
EU
Car petrol tank filling
32 µ g during filling (3 minutes)
EU
Driving for 1 hour
40 µ g/day
ATSDR (US)
Diet
Food and drink products
0.2-3.1 µ g/day
EU
Food
1.4 µ g/day
Canada
Water and food
1.4 µ g/day
IPCS (WHO)
Cigarettes
Smoking
7900 µ g/day
EU
1820 µ g/day
Canada
1800 µ g/day
IPCS (WHO)
Passive smoking
63 µ g/day
Canada
50 µ g/day
IPCS (WHO)

 

Table adapted from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) 2005, WHO International Program on Chemical Safety (IPCS) 1993 and Health Canada 1993.
 

 

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