Arsenic and Red Wine

Photo by Aengeln Englund, Retrieved from Flickr Creative Commons

Arsenic contamination in many U.S. red wines is at higher levels than the EPA standards for drinking water.

In a recent study, published in the Journal of Environmental Health, a researcher at the University of Washington tested the arsenic content in 65 red wines produced in California, Washington, Oregon, and New York. The study detected levels of arsenic ranging from 10 to 76 parts per billion, with an average of 24 parts per billion across the samples. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency limits arsenic levels in drinking water to only 10 parts per billion. Lead, a common co-contaminant, was also measured in the wine samples. Over half of the wines were contaminated with lead, with around five percent above the EPA’s drinking water standards.

The study tested red wines specifically, because the fermentation process for red wines includes the use of grape skins, where most of the arsenic tends to collect. In comparison to previous studies of arsenic levels in European wines, the results showed that American wines as a whole have significantly higher levels of the toxin in their drinks. This can likely be attributed to the location and geology of the vineyards. Arsenic occurs naturally in the environment, in organic and inorganic forms. As rocks erode due to wind or rain, arsenic compounds are released into the surrounding groundwater and soil, where they enter into the food chain. The contamination can also be from man-made practices, such as common agricultural procedures, which are responsible for many of the inorganic forms.

In humans exposed to the toxin, arsenic can lead to conditions such as cancer, skin disorders, and cardiovascular disease. A concurrent study by the same researcher shows that the health risks for consuming this toxin depend greatly on the person’s diet, particularly if they are heavy wine drinkers or eat other foods high in arsenic. “Consumers need to look at their diets as a whole. If you are eating a lot of contaminated rice, organic brown rice syrup, seafood, wine, apple juice — all those [are] heavy contributors to arsenic poisoning,” Denise Wilson, the University of Washington electrical engineer who authored the two studies, explained in a prepared statement.

In this second study, Wilson tested arsenic levels in various foods, and determined the dosages an individual would likely consume from each source. Her results indicated that rice is one of the biggest exposure risks for adults. And, alarmingly, the highest individual risk factor for arsenic exposure appears to be from certain infant formulas.

In the case of wine, Wilson suggests that the solution lies within the industry. American wineries should employ procedures for testing contaminants in their soil and water supplies, and endeavor to mitigate levels that are too high. Similar tactics could be applied to other crops as well.

Featured Image by Aengeln Englund, Retrieved from Flickr Creative Commons

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