Why Are There Brominated Flame Retardants in Some Sodas?

In this day and age, it's safe to assume that no one believes that drinking sodas are good for you. Diet drinks, with their artificial sweeteners, have been linked to increased risk for strokes and heart disease (and may cause you to eat more calories), while sugary sodas, with 13 teaspoons of sugar per 12-ounce serving, are just plain bad.

But even taking the known health impacts of sodas as a starting point, a new exposé published in Environmental Health News this morning manages to raise the level of concern about drinking some sodas.

The article, by Brett Israel, looks at the health impacts of brominated vegetable oil, or BVO, which is used in fruit-flavored sodas. Israel writes:

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.

BVO is found in about 10 percent of sodas, primarily in fruity drinks to keep the flavoring mixed in with the drink. BVO is responsible for the cloudy look in beverages like Mountain Dew; without BVO, Israel writes, "the flavoring would float to the surface."

Of course, BVO is not just an ingredient in drinks; it's also a flame retardant, one of a class of chemicals that are banned in the European Union and under close scrutiny even in the U.S. for building up in human tissue and breast milk. Brominated flame retardants, or BFRs, are used in some children's clothing, foam furniture cushions, and many other products, though we've mostly covered their use in, and calls for their removal from, electronics.

Israel includes a partial list of sodas with BVO listed as an ingredient:

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.

While this issue is just now breaking the surface, it will be interesting to see if there's a similar outcry around BFRs in drinks like to the outcry around them in other products, and if it will reach the scale of concern that has pushed BPA to the forefront in the toxic chemicals debate.

Be sure to read the entire article in Environmental Health News, it includes a lot more detail about the history of BVO use in beverages -- it was banned back in 1970, only to be re-recognized as "safe" after industry pressure -- as well as information about safer alternatives in use in Europe and elsewhere.

Photo CC-licensed by Like_the_Grand_Canyon.