NPR reports that the US FDA recently detained several shipments of orange juice imported from Brazil. The agency received a December 2011 tip-off from a juice company (Minute Maid, via parent company Coca-Cola) that the imports contained low concentrations of the fungicide carbendazim. While this amount is unlikely to harm anyone, FDA indicated in its letter that the EPA hasn’t established safe levels for the compound in juice, and thus considers it an unlawful additive.
Carbendazim, a benzimidazole (a two-ringed aromatic structure with two nitrogens) metabolite of benomyl, was first prepared as a discrete compound by DuPont in the early 1960’s. It’s approved in several other countries to treat black spot, Dutch elm disease, powdery mildew, and a host of other fungal diseases. The fantastic NIH resource Toxnet tells us that carbendazim is a “Group C Possible Human Carcinogen,” but given how many different standards exist for this metric, what does that mean?
Diving deeper into the data, carbendazim appears to be both a teratogen (meaning it impairs fertility or embryonic development), and causes chromosomal aberrations; both effects appear at relatively high doses that you wouldn’t drink in a single glass of OJ.
The unspoken fear here may be long-term exposure. Consider other recent reports on the ability of PFC’s (perfluorinated compounds, like the long-chain PFOS found in Scotchgard) to decrease vaccine response. Or, read the never-ending list of maladies brought on by exposure to phthalates, omnipresent plasticizers known to cause endocrine disruption. Health risks from accumulated compound may prompt the FDA’s proactive stance towards even tiny amounts of this fungicide in imported juice.
Surly Chemist Soapbox Moment – Both NPR reports refer to their subjects as “chemicals” sometimes as early on as the article’s title! The connotation for this word is overwhelmingly negative, which should be apparent from the “chemical-free” movement and the interchangeable use of “chemical” with toxin, poison, or contaminant. Doesn’t chemistry already have image problems?
Here are a few chemical synonyms for the next go-around: compound, moiety, substance, entity, additive, species, or molecule. None of these are perfect for every situation, but any would be preferable over the catch-all, “chemical.”