Month: April 2006

Benzene in Soft Drinks – Analytical Artifact?

An update on the benzene story from last month.

Chemical & Engineering News: Latest News – Dispute Over Benzene In Drinks

In late 2005, FDA began analyzing beverages containing benzoate and ascorbic acid. The majority of samples contained either no detectable benzene or levels below 5 ppb, says Robert E. Brackett, director of FDA’s Center for Food Safety & Applied Nutrition. FDA’s results are preliminary. After its survey is complete, the agency will determine what, if any, additional action is necessary, Brackett wrote to EWG. Changes in FDA’s analytical procedures may account for the differences in results. To collect benzene in the earlier tests, FDA used a purge-and-trap method, in which the samples were heated to 100 °C for 30 minutes. Recently, the agency has been using a static-headspace methodology, which does not involve much heat. In the earlier tests, the high heat was probably creating benzene, says an FDA source who asked not to be identified.

The explanation seems to make sense. Low level analysis is riddled with instances such as these, where the analyte you’re looking for is  introduced into the sample after the fact. It is impossible to decide without looking at the protocol whether this happened or not. Since the source of the benzene is from the reaction of ascorbic acid (aka Vitamin C) and benzoate salts, notably sodium benzoate, it would have been clear to anyone doing the analysis to avoid conditions that would result in the formation of benzene during the analysis, or maybe not…

Static Headspace analysis usually involves some heating as well, at much lower temperatures for shorter periods of time, though in the case of something as hydrophobic as benzene, not much heat would be required. So, the artifacts in static headspace would in this case be lower than in purge and trap analysis.

Still not a concern in the grand scheme of aggregate benzene exposure.

The Goldberg Ruminations – Or how an LA Times “expert” regurgitates talking points

Seeing red over ‘green scare’ – Los Angeles Times:

For example, Gore blames the disappearing snows of Mt. Kilimanjaro on global warming, but a 2003 study in Nature identified the clear-cutting of surrounding moisture-rich forests as the culprit. In the famously fact-checked New Yorker, Editor David Remnick pens a love letter to Gore in which he laments that Earth will “likely be an uninhabitable planet” if we don’t heed Gore’s jeremiads. Oh … come … on!

Well, it’s hard to figure out where to begin refuting nonsense like this, which has been refuted a million times. You don’t take down scientific consensus by pointing out minor inaccuracies in work done by Al Gore, of all people. Yes, it can be argued (Kaser et al., INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF CLIMATOLOGY 24 (3): 329-339 MAR 15 2004) that Kilimanjaro’s ice cap regression may have to do more with loss of moisture than with temperature. That does not make a case of the “Green Meanie” ( typical demonising phrase – should we call Goldberg an ignorant ostrich, well, does not have the same evocativeness!). Repeat after me, one inaccuracy does not disprove millions of observations. I suggest he read Field Notes from a Catastrophe, written in language even he could understand to find  a few more experimental observations to “debunk”.

Major news media have gone after scientists who argue there’s still time to study global warming (IRAQ’s WMD – substitute) rather than plunge into some half-baked environmental jihad (IRAQ WAR – substitute) that could waste possibly trillions of dollars.

Sweet words coming out of one of the war’s most fervent supporters. I like people who can have it both ways on a single day and pretend to not see the contradictions.

Maybe he should read this editorial published right below his.

Update 4/21/06 3:30 PM

The Think Progress Blog has more refutation, if this drivel needed any more refuting.

Greenscanner: Or how cool is this!

Courtesy the grist, my favorite environment related website…


This site is a public database of opinions about the environmental friendliness of various products. It has been designed for use with network-enabled mobile devices so you can use it at the food store. Type in a UPC code and hit “Go” to see what people think about the product (1 is bad, 5 is good). Then you can then add a comment and score of your own!

This is a start. What we need (I was thinking about this making dinner yesterday) is an easy link between a product’s UPC and its Life Cycle Analysis, if it even exists…

Cost benefit Analysis of Air Pollution Regulation

Well, looks like old fashioned regulation actually stands up to Cost Benefit analysis. The problem is that the costs are to Industry, a well organized bunch of folks with lobbies, scientists, and such, and the benefits are primarily to the general population, well, they get a choice every few years!

Chemical & Engineering News: Latest News – Budget Office Reports On Regulations:

Budget Office Reports On Regulations EPA air pollution rule helps boost overall societal benefits of federal actions Cheryl Hogue A 2005 air pollution rule is a major reason why benefits from federal regulations continue to outpace costs, says a draft White House Office of Management & Budget report released on April 13. Federal regulations issued between 1996 and 2005 generate total annual benefits estimated to be between $94 billion and $449 billion, the OMB report says. Costs of those rules, which range from health and education standards to transportation and labor regulations, are estimated to be between $37 billion and $44 billion yearly, the draft report says. The document is the 2006 installment of an analysis that OMB by law must prepare each year for Congress. The ratio of benefits to costs is higher for the 1996–2005 decade than it was between 1995 and 2004 primarily because of a single rule reducing air pollution from power plants, the draft report says. That EPA regulation requires 28 eastern states and the District of Columbia to control sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide, two key pollutants released by coal-fired power plants. According to the draft report, that rule will generate from $50 billion to $60 billion a year worth of health benefits by reducing public exposure to fine particulate matter. This rule will cost about $1.8 billion annually to implement. Most of the costs and benefits of federal regulation are due to EPA rules, the draft report adds. During the 1996–2005 decade, the annual benefits of the agency’s rules are calculated to be between $59 billion and $394 billion, while estimated costs ranged from $24 billion to $26 billion. The draft report is available at Chemical & Engineering News ISSN 0009-2347 Copyright © 2006 American Chemical Society

Toxic Release Inventory Excitement!

Environmental Protection Agency – EPA Press Release: EPA Report Shows Decrease in Toxic Chemicals Released

(Washington, D.C. – April 12, 2006) The amount of toxic chemicals released into the environment decreased four percent from 2003 to 2004 according to the Environmental Protections Agency’s Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) released today.

“Today’s report demonstrates that economic growth and effective environmental protection can go hand-in-hand,” said Linda Travers, acting assistant administrator for the Office of Environmental Information. “We are encouraged to see a continued reduction in the overall amount of toxic chemicals being released into the environment.”

Significant decreases were seen in some of the most toxic chemicals from 2003-2004.

· Dioxin and dioxin compounds, which decreased by 58 percent,
· mercury and mercury compounds, which were cut by 16 percent and
· polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) went down 92 percent.

Why, that is positively great news, especially on the dioxin and PCB front. Since pictures are nicer and data from the last 5 years provides a little more context, why don’t we use the Toxics Release Inventory Explorer to pull some information together…


No drastic decreases, dioxin releases during 2004 are close to those during 2000. Wow, seems like 2003 was an especially bad year, the PCB release is off the charts. One landfill facility was responsible for more than 80% of the release. Kinda useless to point to trends caused by single data points, but I guess that’s what press releases are for, pick on some fortuitous piece of data and hope that the media is lazy enough to not spend a little time looking into the story.

The grist picks (up) on this release as well.

Meanwhile, the EPA is considering a loosening of regulation in this regard, read this Seattle Post-Intelligencer article for more details.

The EPA inventory “keeps that pressure on to keep those emissions down,” Hansen said. That’s the purpose of this kind of public information or “right-to-know” program.

The EPA has not made a final decision on the changes it has proposed — namely, requiring emissions reports every two years instead of annually and raising the volume of chemicals that have to be released before a report is required.

“The jury is still out,” said Brook Madrone, TRI program manager for the regional EPA office.

Information is power (always end on a cliche!)

Deadly Fire Exposes Laziness in the Media

Deadly Fire Exposes Old Perils in New India – New York Times

The fire in this bustling but entirely provincial city, roughly 50 miles northeast of the capital, New Delhi, is now seen as an example of the painful paradox of India’s economic miracle. The hunger for brand-name goods — a Toshiba television, a Whirlpool washing machine, an LG air-conditioning unit — has spread to middle India. But that hunger has only exposed the raw and yawning gaps that remain: a disregard for health and safety measures in many places, combined with a deep public suspicion that corrupt officials turn a blind eye to the need to enforce standards in these areas.

Please, I know that this is the standard article frame, the “painful paradox of (insert country’s name here)’s Economic Miracle”. One has seen a million stories about “developing countries” like these with the word “paradox” thrown in. Of course, the writer makes no attempt to find even one person or reference that calls this a “paradox”. But why is this a paradox? Is this not the rule, the true paradox is when economic development, government efficiency, population attitudes, literacy, and all those other indicators of a country’s state of being go hand in hand. As in, a GDP increase of 10% brings a 10% increase in government efficiency, what a terrible media frame.

Fires, stampedes, bus accidents, plagues, you name it, easily avoidable deaths happen all the time all over India. They have nothing to do with anything other than the combination of poor enforcement, poor crowd control, over population and systems that don’t work. These things were happening when I was growing up in the 1970s and they will happen for the forseeable future. How surprising is it that it is easier to manufacture a few million washing machines than to change a country’s attitudes and performance.

Governance is more difficult than making money, and requires the money to have been in the system for a few years. Good governance also requires higher expectations, and higher expectations come with the higher standard of living that the injection of money brings. So, no paradox, just the natural order of things: Money – Expectations – Governance.



Turtles, Arribadas, Science, Policy and Implementation

turtle Read stuff like this (hat tip to my mom for telling me about this report she’d seen on TV in Madras), and you begin to doubt your utility as a scientist.
IBNLive : Orissa turtles neck-deep in danger

Nearly 3,000 Olive Ridley turtles have died off the Orissa coast this season. Beaches have become turtle graveyards.

Orissa is one of the three places in the world where the Olive Ridleys come for their annual mass nesting.

Mechanised trawlers are the biggest culprits for this slaughter. When the trawlers go to the sea, turtles are trapped in their fishing nets. The turtles are unable to disentangle themselves and suffocate to death.

See the video report too. In her own breathlessly indignant style, the reporter explains the science behind turtle excluder devices (well known and established), the regulation expressely forbidding shrimp trawling close to the coast, especially during the arribada, the money set aside in the budget to purchase a few speed boats for the coast guard, who are well aware of the problem, so wot’s, uh, the deal?

The investigative reports contradict each other, the first one linked said there was no patrolling, the second one gushingly praises the coast guard for vigorous enforcement and patrolling, so which is it? I need to find out, call on some old friends… But clearly, there are issues if net catch mortality is on the rise.

The three pillars of any regulatory action are the science, the policy, and the implementation. The science here is very clear (though the US administration seems to not think so any more?), shrimp nets with turtle excluder devices cause decrease in mortality. The policy is clear, use these nets when shrimp fishing, and completely ban fishing activity during the arribada (the number of turtles in an arribada, 50000 in a night and perhaps 300000-400000 over the course of a week is staggeringly large, so, shrimp net or not, you’ll kill a lot of turtles just by being there).

So, like anything else in India, where is the implementation? The people running the trawlers know they are illegal anyway, so they don’t bother with the TEDs. The owners of the trawling boats never face the consequences, only the poor hapless fishermen running the boats. No attempt is made to coopt the people being regulated, it is a top down “we tell you what to do” kind of situation where the law is selectively enforced, no explanations are given, the regulation may just be an excuse to get some kickbacks. The fishermen see the excluder device as an inconvenience as they are not shown how to use it. Some low level bureaucrat in charge of buying high speed boats for the state’s forest service either does not realize the importance of getting this policy on the road, or is on the take. You can pick any, or all of these reasons and you’ll see why just like most other things in India, the road to hell is paved with good intentions 🙁

Why be a scientist and come up with cool new techniques to do things when you don’t pay equal attention to the implementation of techniques invented 20 years back? As a responsible scientist, I must look at policy and implentation with as much interest and passion as I look at the science – New career paths?

Benzene in soft drinks – Flavor of the Month?

Benzene Levels in Soft Drinks Above Limit – Yahoo! News

WASHINGTON – Cancer-causing benzene has been found in soft drinks at levels above the limit considered safe for drinking water, the Food and Drug Administration acknowledged Wednesday.
Even so, the FDA still believes there are no safety concerns about benzene in soft drinks, or sodas, said Laura Tarantino, the agency’s director of food additive safety.”We haven’t changed our view that right now, there is not a safety concern, not a public health concern,” she said. “But what we need to do is understand how benzene forms and to ensure the industry is doing everything to avoid those circumstances.”

The admission contradicted statements last week, when officials said FDA found insignificant levels of benzene.

In fact, a different study found benzene at four times the tap water limit, on average, in 19 of 24 samples of diet soda.

The formation of benzene in soft drinks is from the reaction of ascorbic acid (aka Vitamin C) and benzoate salts, notably sodium benzoate which is used as a preservative. As the FDA letter states:

We learned that elevated temperature and light can stimulate benzene formation in the presence of benzoate salts and vitamin C, while sugar and EDTA salts inhibit benzene formation.

Is this a pressing concern? First of all, exposure modeling done by the EPA indicates that 93% of all benzene exposure is through inhalation (cigarette smoke, indoor offgassing, that wonderful refueling smell!), with 7% exposure through oral ingestion. So, potentially elevated levels in this 7% fraction are not likely to greatly increase exposure. In addition, the 5 parts per billion level for drinking water is set based on an assumed daily consumption of 2 liters per day (Source – USEPA), a safety factor up from the actual estimated 0.9-1.2 L per day measured consumption. Assuming the average amount of benzene in soda (mainly diet, mind you) is 4 times that of drinking water, a 500 ml dose of diet soda per day is required to equal the dose from drinking water, which mind you, only counts for 7% of the total bezene exposure. So in a sense, a person drinking 2 servings of diet soda per day would exceed the exposure from drinking water at the federally regulated level, and knock the socks off the California standard of 0.13 ppb in water. This will increase his/her known oral exposure. The total exposure to benzene of that individual, however, would not go up significantly because the overwhelming majority of the exposure still occurs through the nose, not through the mouth.

The issue here, and benzene is just the symptom, is that consumers know much more about their drinking water than they do about their manufactured food products, and that is not good for the consumer or for the industry because in the absence of knowledge and full disclosure, both parties are vulnerable. Which is why attempts to limit consumer knowledge hurt everyone.

Conclusion Please don’t stop drinking soda because of this, I am sure you can find plenty of other reasons to limit your soda consumption… Drink lots of filtered tap water, it’s the best!! And, I can assure you that most tap water is tested thoroughly, it’s zero calories and cheap!

Where there’s a Will??

Let Cooler Heads Prevail

Read the column, take a deep breath and marvel at the utter dishonesty. George Will is supposedly one of the less extreme conservative columnists out there. But I guess when it comes to this issue, he has no qualms about misleading, setting up strawmen, and actually lying. I don’t think I can add any to the rebuttal from Progress Report…

On Sunday, conservative pundit George Will used prime space in the Washington Post and other major papers to suggest that not only is global warming not the result of human activity, but that global warming may not exist at all. There is no evidence to support Will’s claim, so he resorted to distortion.

WILL SUGGESTS GLOBAL WARMING MIGHT NOT EXIST: George Will notes that global temperatures have risen about one degree over the last 100 years, but that “might be the margin of error when measuring the planet’s temperature.” Embarrassingly, the only support Will provides for this statement is a crude analogy. (“To take a person’s temperature, you put a thermometer in an orifice or under an arm. Taking the temperature of our churning planet, with its tectonic plates sliding around over a molten core, involves limited precision.”) There is not a shred of scientific evidence to support Will’s position that the earth is not warming. Science Magazine analyzed 928 peer-reviewed scientific papers on global warming published between 1993 and 2003. Not a single one challenged the scientific consensus that the earth’s temperature is rising due to human activity.

LIES, DAMN LIES, AND GEORGE WILL’S CITATIONS: The highlight of Will’s column is a list of citations from the 1970s of publications that purportedly warn of “global cooling.” (Nevermind that, even if it were all true, it does not function as an analytic rebuttal to scientific evidence of global warming caused by human activity.) The first such citation is from a December 1976 edition of Science Magazine which warned of “extensive Northern Hemispheric glaciation.” The use of this quote is outrageously dishonest. First, the article in question deals with variations in the earth’s climate based on variations in the earth’s orbit over periods of 20,000 years or longer. Second, the article explicitly excludes the effect of humans on the climate. (The article states its predictions apply “only to the natural component of future climatic trends — and not to such anthropogenic effects as those due to the burning of fossil fuels.) George Will is clearly counting on the fact that most of his readers will not have access to a 1976 edition of Science Magazine.

And it goes on to rebut every one of his bromides. Read it! Here’s a media issue that Will brings up:

About the mystery that vexes ABC — Why have Americans been slow to get in lock step concerning global warming? — perhaps the “problem” is not big oil or big coal, both of which have discovered there is big money to be made from tax breaks and other subsidies justified in the name of combating carbon.

Perhaps the problem is big crusading journalism.

Perhaps the problem is utter lack of federal leadership on this issue. To use my favorite “If they can put a man on the moon” line of reasoning, Armstrong did not make it to the moon because a bunch of Americans on the street were “quick to get in lock step concerning the Moon program” (ah, to use Will’s own words). It took a coordinated effort on the part of government to establish clear targets, pump in a lot of money, and marshall the scientific resources towards achieving the target. And this was an engineering problem with a specific target and solution. Deal with the complex, only partly characterized beast that is global climate and even an idiot would conclude that no amount of individual awareness, innovation or market effort is going to be sufficient.

Dealing with climate change requires a lot of effort on the part of a lot of people, it will require individual ingenuity, sacrifice and market forces, but it starts with the will to do it (and the George Will to not stand in the way!), and the will, as has been the case with many projects in the country starts with federal leadership and the injection of the federal dollar.

If the president stood up every day and beat the drum about climate change at half the intensity with which he talks about “Exporting Democracy”, most people would listen and get in “lock step”. In this respect I guess we live in an idea monarchy! It has everything to do with who’s doing the convincing!


The folks at RealClimate rebutted this very same comment from Will in December 2004, so this is an old, recycled lie. When will these pundits realize that in this day and age of a million fact checkers and gotcha people, you can’t really get way with this kind of BS. On the other hand, I guess he does not care.