Sarah Kavanagh isn't your ordinary 15-year-old. Sure, the Hattiesburg High School sophomore rides the bus to school and participates in all the typical activities -- everything from Spirit Girls to forensics club. But this Mississippi teen also is behind an online petition to remove a potentially toxic chemical from sodas and sports drinks that are popular with her friends and family.
Last month, Kavanagh read an article by Environmental Health News about the potential health threats of brominated vegetable oil, an emulsifier used in some popular beverages. Kavanagh found the story after searching the web for more information about BVO. What she read inspired her to start a petition on Change.org calling for Gatorade's manufacturer, PepsiCo, to remove BVO from certain products, such as Gatorade Thirst Quencher Orange. Today the petition has nearly 200,000 signatures from around the world.
BVO was patented by chemical companies as a flame retardant and has been banned in food and beverages in Europe and Japan. In 1970, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration conditionally approved the interim use of BVO in fruit-flavored soft drinks. More than 30 years later, BVO's status is still listed as interim, despite concerns from scientists that the research is outdated and insufficient.
BVO could be building up in human tissues, just like other brominated compounds such as flame retardants. In mouse studies, big doses caused reproductive and behavioral problems. After extreme binges of sodas that contain BVO, a few patients have needed medical attention for skin lesions, memory loss and nerve disorders, all symptoms of overexposure to bromine.
EHN Staff Writer Brett Israel, who wrote the original article, spoke with Kavanagh about her petition, how she feels about taking on a huge corporation and her plans for life after high school.
Sarah, tell me a little about the day you discovered BVO.
I'm a vegan, so I don't eat anything that has animal products in it. I had a Gatorade and I was just Googling the ingredients to make sure I can have everything, and then I saw BVO and I'd never seen it in a product before because I don't drink soda. I was like, "Dude, what is this?" Your article came up, and it said all these side effects, and I was like, "Whoa! That is not good."
What else surprised you about BVO?
That the FDA would allow this in a product. We allow them to handle decisions about what we consume, and yet they would put something so harmful into something people consume daily.
How do you feel about taking on a huge, multinational company such as PepsiCo?
Honestly, I didn't expect for it to get as big as it did. But now that it's starting to get some more attention, it's overwhelming. But I'm not scared, since almost 200,000 people are backing me up. I think we'll be able to make a point.
Have you heard from anyone at PepsiCo?
I got an email a couple of weeks ago. It was a very general letter. It didn't bring up any topics that I had mentioned. It was just, like, "thank you for your concern, we just want to let you know that you've been heard, blah blah blah." I wanted more.
What's your next move?
I'm going to actually try and talk with the FDA and see if we can get a ban. Japan has already banned it from their entire country and I'm really hoping that we can do the same.
What about BVO moved you to launch the petition? Do any of your friends drink beverages that have BVO in them?
Yeah, my little brother. My parents have taken him off Mountain Dew, Gatorade, all that stuff. My brother-in-law is addicted to Mountain Dew. He is a big gamer as well. My mom used to work for Pepsi, and I don't drink sodas, but me and my little brother always loved Gatorade. It was disappointing to know that they'd put the consumers at risk like that.
What was your reaction when the petition started gaining momentum?
I started the petition in early November, and it blew up quickly. In a matter of less than a month it got 170,000 signatures. I was really happy because I'm glad that people care about what they are eating and drinking.
Have you received any memorable messages from the people that signed your petition?
There was one person that commented that said she used to drink Gatorade whenever she got out of chemotherapy, for electrolytes. She said, "I already had enough bad side effects from my chemo, I don't need it from my drink." That just kind of stuck with me.
How does it make you feel to know that people are changing their behaviors based on your petition?
It's really empowering. I'm a kid and I'm getting my point across and people are caring and concerned. They care about it as strongly as I do.
The New York Times recently wrote a story about your petition. What was it like to see your picture in the New York Times?
It was really, really cool. I found out that they were going to call me and I was like, "the New York Times?!" I was shocked.
How have your parents reacted to all this attention?
My parents [Carol Kavanagh-Powe and Brendan Kavanagh] have just been very, very thrilled that I've been standing for what I care about. I'm really glad that they're supporting me, because I don't know if I would be able to deal with all this if not for them.
What do you want to do after high school? Any plans to be a scientist or journalist?
I want to major in linguistics. I love foreign languages and different cultures. If everything goes as planned I'd like to teach English in France.
Thanks for talking with me, Sarah.
Thanks so much for writing that article. If it weren't for you this whole thing probably wouldn't have happened.
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