When well-intentioned, 16-year old Sarah Kavanagh Googled an ingredient that she found on the label of her Gatorade, she learned that the chemical–brominated vegetable oil (BVO)–is also patented in Europe as a flame retardant. Since she didn't like what she learned, she launched a petition on Change.org to get PepsiCo Inc., to remove it from Gatorade, which uses it to keep the color and flavors distributed in the drink.  PepsiCo agreed to take it out of Gatorade, but will continue its use in Mountain Dew, noting that the substance is safe.  However, PepsiCo is now in a precarious position. Once this chemical was publically tied to the words “flame retardant,” it was dead in the water. The drumbeat for its complete elimination from all drinks has begun, but there is no assurance that the world—or our soft drinks—will be any safer in the end. 

Ever since the Chicago Tribune launched a series of articles condemning flame retardant chemicals as a grave public health risk, these chemicals have been the subject of an anti-chemical media frenzy. Reason, science, and any attempt to weight risks against benefits are no longer part of this debate. And that is where the discussion on BVO appears to have landed.  Nonetheless, let’s take a reasoned look at this issue.

Simply because something resists flames does not mean it will harm you, particularly when exposure is low. Remember, water is a really good flame retardant. It won't kill you if you have a few glasses, but it will kill you if you drink too much at one time, producing hyponatremia or water intoxification.  

Still, Michael Jacobson of the Center for Science and the Public Interest says that BVO is a “poorly tested and possibly dangerous food additive” and “safe substitutes are used in Europe and elsewhere.”  Really? 

Millions of people have consumed drinks containing BVO, which has been added to packaged drinks since 1931. If there were a dire risk, don't you think we'd see some evidence? Over this 82-year history, there are few cases of anyone suffering ill effects. I found only two documented cases.

In both cases, the subject drank a very large volume of BVO-containing drinks on a daily basis. One case reported in 2003 involved an individual who drank eight liters of a beverage called Ruby Red Squirt daily for several months and the other drank two to four liters of cola daily (duration unspecified). The Ruby Red Squirt drinker suffered with bromoderma or bromide intoxification, which caused “ulcerated, erythematous nodules” (red, irritated ulcers) on his hands. He recovered after discontinuing high consumption of Ruby Red Squirt. The cola drinker suffered more serious impacts with “headache, fatigue, ataxia, and memory loss which progressed over 30 days,” as noted in the scientific literature in 1997. He improved after undergoing hemodialysis. 

Now a report in Scientific American suggests that BVO is having a much bigger effect.  Supposedly “gamers,” kids up late playing video games and slamming down liters of soda at night, are suffering ill effects. But the only recorded cases they include are the two mentioned above from 1997 and 2003, making their claims little more than hearsay. Of course, if your kids are up late downing sugared drinks, you might want to counsel them on the importance of moderation. After all, even eating healthy foods in excess can have drawbacks.  For example, excessive apple consumption can create dental problems.

With only two documented cases of health effects, BVO has a better safety record than many other things. More people have suffered ill effects from water intoxication.

And compare the risks to other food borne risks from pathogens like e coli and salmonella or even naturally occurring chemicals in our food. For example, more people have suffered ill effects from eating green potatoes than from over-consumption of BVO soft drinks. See this World Health Organization report, which details how when exposed to light, the potatoes form a dangerous chemical called solanine, which can kill you if levels get too high. The green color comes from chlorophyll, but it is also an indication that solanine levels have increased as well. 

While the risks of water or potatoes are surely real—and more substantial than BVO—we don’t rush to ban them or petition anyone to immediately remove them from the market. We can consume them in moderation, and we can do the same with drinks that contain BVO.

That does not mean we shouldn't reevaluate food additives periodically. But the quick condemnation of products on specious grounds is a dangerous approach.

In fact, we cannot be sure that substitutes—which may not have an 82-year safety record—are safer, as Michael Jacobson claims. Activist groups have made that claim before and more often than not, they are wrong. My posts related to activist campaigns to eliminate bottled water or ban the chemical Bisphenol A offer a couple recent examples of how forced substitutes can be more dangerous than the products they replace.