Health Effects of Brominated Vegetable Oil or BVO in Soft Drinks
Why Is BVO Used in Soft Drinks?
When bromine is added to vegetable oil, brominated vegetable oil or BVO is produced. The process gives the oil a similar density to water. A small amount of BVO is mixed with some citrus-flavored soft drinks - both fizzy and non-fizzy - so that the oil-soluble flavors don’t separate from the liquid.
The safety of BVO inside our bodies is a controversial topic because bromine is a toxic chemical. The oil has been banned in most European countries and in Japan, but it’s still used in both the United States and in Canada.
In North America the amount of BVO in soft drinks is limited to 15 parts per million, which health agencies (the FDA and Health Canada) say is safe. However, this limit was established by the FDA in 1977. Since then the daily consumption of soft drinks has increased dramatically. Some scientists feel that the allowable level of brominated vegetable oil in drinks should be re-evaluated.
The soft drink industry says that only ten percent of the soft drinks sold in North America contain BVO, but some popular brands are included in this ten percent. The call for the reassessment of BVO's safety is based on some troubling observations. There are been several reported incidences of health problems - some serious - appearing after a person has drunk a large amount of a soft drink containing brominated vegetable oil every day for a long period of time.
Is Brominated Vegetable Oil Harmful?
There is evidence that BVO may be harmful at higher doses. While many people ingesting soft drinks may not reach a sufficient dosage to cause harm, some do. One condition that excess BVO may cause is bromism. Some examples are described below.
In 1997 in California, a report by a researcher at the Davis Medical Center (part of the University of California) described a male who consumed two to four liters of a cola containing BVO every day for at least 30 days. He developed symptoms of bromism (injurious effects on the nervous system due to bromine buildup). The symptoms were progressive, starting with a headache, memory loss and ataxia (loss of muscle coordination) and ending with an inability to walk.
The patient required hemodialysis in order to recover. In hemodialysis the patient’s blood is sent through a device which acts as an artificial kidney, removing specific chemicals from the blood.
In 2012 a study at the University of Hohenheim in Stuttgart, Germany, found that after they had consumed “several” drinks containing brominated vegetable oil every day (for an unspecified length of time) people experienced a headache, fatigue, memory loss and loss of muscle coordination.
Some other research showed that brominated soybean oil caused serious reproductive problems in rats, with the higher doses causing more problems than the lower doses. The experiment shows how careful researchers have to be with their studies, however. It's possible that the higher dose of soybean oil rather than the higher dose of bromine caused the problems. This isn't likely, though, since soybean oil is widely used and hasn't been found to cause the severe problems in rats which developed in this experiment.
In 2003 a report in the New England Journal of Medicine described a case of bromoderma that developed in someone who had been drinking eight liters of a soft drink containing BVO every day for several months. Bromoderma is a skin condition in which red pustules appear on the skin after exposure to bromine or bromide. Bromide and bromine are related chemicals. Bromide ions are produced from bromine atoms.
Dangerous Flame Retardants
Brominated Flame Retardants and Brominated Vegetable Oil
Brominated Flame Retardants, or BFRs, are organic compounds containing bromine that are added to products such as textiles, furniture, plastics and electronic equipment to reduce the chance of a fire spreading. BFRs slowly escape from products after being added to them. The chemicals are persistent (don't break down easily when released into the environment) and bioaccumulative (collect in the tissues of living things).
Based on animal studies, it's thought that BFRs may be able to cause nerve damage, thyroid problems and endocrine disruption in humans. The endocrine system consists of hormones and their actions. There are different types of BFRs. Different types may have different health effects. Some researchers say that people need to be exposed to large amounts of BFRs before symptoms appear, while others say that even small doses are dangerous.
One way in which brominated flame retardants stop fire is by the action of the bromine that they contain. The bromine is released into the burning material in an activated form. The activated bromine stops or slows the chemical reactions taking place, thereby reducing or preventing burning.
A brominated vegetable oil molecule has a different structure from a brominated flame retardant molecule, but like the flame retardant it contains bromine. Researchers think that some of the effects of the brominated oil molecule and the brominated flame retardant molecule in our bodies may be the same, because they both transport toxic bromine into the body.
Bromine in its molecular form is very toxic. As a liquid it's corrosive and can burn skin. The inhaled gas irritates the air passages, makes breathing difficult, and may cause a headache, dizziness and runny eyes.
Bromine in the body exists in its ionic form, called bromide. This too is toxic, although it's not as dangerous as the bromine molecule. Bromide is a cumulative poison. Dangerous symptoms may not appear immediately but develop as the chemical builds up in the body. Bromide is eliminated in the urine, but stays in the body for a long time - nine to twelve days - before this elimination happens.
Up until 1975 medicines containing bromides were used as sedatives and anticonvulsants. Some were widely advertised and were available over-the-counter. Two early and popular products were Dr. Miles Nervine, which was used to soothe tension, and the original Bromo-Seltzer, which contained sodium bromide and was used to relieve headaches. (The modern Bromo-Seltzer doesn't contain bromide.)
Bromide sedatives were withdrawn because of their toxicity and their ability to cause chronic bromism. People with bromism may experience emotional instability, hallucinations and slurred speech in addition to memory loss and movement problems. Unfortunately, in the past some people who developed bromism after taking bromide sedatives were admitted to psychiatric hospitals because their doctors didn't realize that they were being poisoned by their medication.
The Future For BVO
Soft drink makers in North America point out that health agencies say that brominated vegetable oil in drinks is safe. Concerned researchers say that BVO hasn't been tested adequately at today's intake levels and that the guidelines for its use were determined many years ago when our drinking habits were different. The 15 parts per million limit established in 1977 was supposed to be an interim value until more testing was done, but many years later the same limit is in place and no official FDA testing has been done. The FDA says that research to check the BVO limit would require resources which are not presently available and that updating the limit is not a public health priority.
Proponents of brominated vegetable oil say that many substances in food and beverages would be dangerous if eaten or drunk in large quantities - even water - but are safe in small or moderate quantities. While this may well be true, we need some accurate answers to the following questions. What level of BVO is safe for the majority of people? Is the safety margin being exceeded in today's society?
In general, health experts seem to think that an occasional soft drink containing BVO is unlikely to cause any problems, but a high consumption of beverages containing BVO - at the level drunk by some people today - might. More research into the safety of brominated vegetable oil is definitely needed.
© 2013 Linda Crampton
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