Brominated Vegetable Oil, Flame Retardants, and Bromine Toxicity
Bromine is an interesting chemical that is toxic to humans unless it's present at a very low concentration. Two ways in which we may be exposed to the chemical are via the brominated vegetable oil that is present in some soft drinks and via contact with brominated flame retardants. Historically, people were exposed to bromine through the use of certain sedatives.
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.
BVO has been banned in some parts of the world, including Europe. North American health agencies say that the chemical is safe at the levels normally used in drinks. Some people have experienced ill effects from an excessive intake of the chemical, however.
Brominated flame retardants escape into the environment from products containing them during the lifetime of the products or after they are thrown away. Unfortunately, the compounds don't break down but persist in the environment. In addition, if they enter the human body, they accumulate there.
BVO in Soft Drinks
In North America, the amount of BVO in soft drinks is limited to 15 parts per million, which health agencies (the FDA or Food and Drug Administration and Health Canada) say is safe. However, this limit was established by the FDA in 1977. As the first document referred to in the "Reference" section below states, the FDA originally said that the limit was an interim value and that it wanted to receive the reports of toxicology tests performed at six month intervals. When I last viewed the document, it had been updated on April 24th, 2020. According to the wording in the document, it seems that no toxicology reports were presented between 1977 (or 1984, when the document was amended) and 2020.
Since 1977, the daily consumption of soft drinks by some individuals has increased dramatically. We really need new tests to confirm that the average intake of the chemical today is safe. I have been able to confirm that the additive has been eliminated from some North American brands of soft drinks in the last few years. I'm unaware whether other brands on the continent still use it.
In 2014, the Coca-Cola and PepsiCo companies announced that they would eliminate BVO from their products. Coco-Cola said that they would remove the additive by the end of the year. PepsiCo gave no timeline for the elimination. At the time when this article was last updated, the removal by both companies had been completed, at least in North America.
Bromism Caused by Soft Drink Consumption
There is evidence that BVO is harmful at high doses. Many people ingesting soft drinks may never reach a sufficient dosage to cause harm, but the literature shows that some people have. An excessive intake of BVO may cause a condition called bromism. Two examples of this condition are described below.
In 1997, a report by a researcher at 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, or 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.
A 2012 study at the University of Hohenheim in Germany found that after people had consumed “several” drinks containing brominated vegetable oil every day for an unspecified length of time, they experienced a headache, fatigue, memory loss, and loss of muscle coordination.
Bromoderma After Consuming Soft Drinks
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.
The examples described above suggest that a high intake of BVO over a long period of time is necessary in order for health problems to develop. Low consumption of the additive is probably safe, although this is not absolutely certain.
Safety of Brominated Vegetable Oil
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 that are not presently available and that updating the limit is not a public health priority, especially as the additive is gradually being eliminated from North American soft drinks (and may have been completed). Proponents of brominated vegetable oil remind us that many substances in food and beverages would be dangerous if eaten or drunk in large quantities but are safe in small or moderate quantities.
In general, health experts seem to think that a low to moderate consumption of soft drinks containing BVO is unlikely to cause any problems, but a high consumption of the beverages might. It's probably a good idea to choose a beverage without BVO or to drink one containing the additive in moderation.
The Coca-Cola Company is transitioning from the use of brominated vegetable oil (BVO) to sucrose acetate isobutyrate (SAIB) and/or glycerol ester of rosin (singly or in-combination).— Coca-Cola Company Website, May 5th, 2014
Brominated Flame Retardants
Brominated Flame Retardants, or BFRs, are organic compounds containing bromine. They are added to products such as carpets, mattresses, drapes, upholstered furniture, plastics, and electronic equipment to reduce the chance of a fire spreading. BFRs slowly escape from products after being added to them and when the products are discarded, contaminating air, soil, and water. The chemicals are persistent, which means that don't break down easily when released into the environment. They are also said to be bioaccumulative because they collect in the tissues of living things. This means that even when a particular BFR is no longer used by manufacturers, it may still be hurting us.
Bromine compounds released into the environment can enter our bodies in our food. Different types of BFRs may have different health effects. Based on animal studies, it's thought that the chemicals may be able to cause nerve damage, thyroid problems, and DNA injury. Some of the chemicals are suspected of being carcinogens, or chemicals that can cause cancer.
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. The retardants can certainly be helpful, but it would be nice to find products that are just as useful and are also safe for humans and the environment.
Some brominated flame retardants may be safe at a low concentration but dangerous at a higher one. In November, 2016, the International Joint Commission announced that polybrominated diphenyl ethers (or PBDEs) had reached a level in the Great Lakes basin that was potentially harmful for human health. Lake Huron and Lake Erie were most seriously affected.
The Search for Effective and Safe Flame Retardants
Effective flame retardants are important in our lives, but some are harmful. Researchers are exploring specific chemicals from nature and chemicals based on natural molecules. These may be safe compounds that are useful in the prevention or weakening of fires.
Bromine Toxicity and Historical Sedatives
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 it 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.
Safety of Bromine in Our Environment
For most of us, it's harder to avoid bromine in flame retardant than it is to avoid brominated vegetable oil. We can control or eliminate BVO in our bodies by deciding what drinks to ingest and how often to drink them. We may be exposed to brominated flame retardants even if we don't have them in the items in our home, however.
Flame retardants can be very useful and are important products. Since the chemicals are often sprayed on products or otherwise loosely attached, they can escape into their surroundings quite easily, however. The ability of some of them to persist in the environment is worrying. Some manufacturers are now using a different type of retardant instead of a brominated one. The problem is that items from the past in landfills and other areas are still releasing bromine compounds from their surface.
It would probably be a good idea for consumers to investigate the type of flame retardant added to a household product that they want to buy. Although many people never think of doing this, it could be a good practice to start, for our sake and for the sake of other people. Chemical problems in the environment can stay with us for a long time. The problem with BFRs is a reminder that what we do today can affect the future.
- CFR - Code of Federal Regulations Title 21 from the FDA
- Soda and brominated vegetable oil from the Mayo Clinic
- A Case of Bromism from Europe PubMed Central (Europe PMC)
- Reference to University of Hohenheim Study from The Star newspaper (Please note that while the information in the article is useful, the headline is out of date. The Coca-Cola and Pespi Cola companies have now removed BVO from their products, at least in North America.)
- A Case of Bromoderma from the New England Journal of Medicine (Abstract)
- Brominated Flame Retardants from the European Food Safety Authority
- Flame Retardants in the Great Lakes Basin from the TreeHugger website
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
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© 2013 Linda Crampton