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2 Soda Makers Eye Benzene Suit Deal

Two soft drink companies have stopped using ingredients that can form cancer-causing benzene, according to a proposed lawsuit settlement.

Parents sued Atlanta-based In Zone Brands Inc., maker of BellyWashers, and Preston, Wash.-based TalkingRain Beverage Co., over drinks containing benzene, which is linked to leukemia.

In documents filed in District of Columbia Superior Court, the companies and the parents agreed to settle the dispute. A hearing was scheduled for Friday when a judge would consider the settlement.

BellyWashers are juice drinks that come in reusable bottles featuring Spiderman, Hello Kitty, Scooby Doo and other well-known characters.

The drink makers denied that their products caused any harm. But they agreed in April and May to change their ingredients, after the suit was filed. They also agreed to refund or replace drinks made before the switch in ingredients.

Similar suits against other drink companies are pending in Kansas, Massachusetts, Florida, California and New Jersey.

Boston lawyer Andrew Rainer, who represents the parents, said the suit should prod bigger companies to change their ingredients.

"I think if they understand that consumers, and perhaps courts, expect them to eliminate this problem, they will," Rainer said.

The companies did not immediately return telephone calls Thursday from The Associated Press.

Benzene can form in soft drinks containing two ingredients: Vitamin C, also called ascorbic acid, and either sodium benzoate or potassium benzoate. Scientists say factors such as heat or light exposure can trigger a reaction that forms benzene in the beverages.

According to the suits, independent laboratory tests found benzene in the kids' drinks at levels above the federal limit for benzene in drinking water.

The Food and Drug Administration found similar results on unidentified brands in sampling from 1995 through 2001 and said they would do more tests.

FDA officials say there is no safety concern and that levels are still relatively low compared with other sources of exposure to benzene.

The soft drink industry agrees and says the amount of soft drinks people consume is much less than the amount of tap water they are exposed to.

As part of the settlement, the companies agreed to pay $35,000 each. Rainer said most of the money will pay legal costs.

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