Arsenic in wine! A scientific perspective

John Juergens

John Juergens

The latest health scare about the presence of small amounts of arsenic in some wines has been widely disseminated by the news media. And, as usual with such alerts, what has been reported are only the sensational and incomplete “facts,” which have led to much confusion and concern, particularly in the wine consuming public.

On March 19, 2015 MSN set off the first alarm by declaring that some studies suggest that “a glass of wine just might kill you.” Then CNN and other outlets picked up the chant and set off additional alarms, all of which have been grossly false as reported. Robin Garr of the website Wine Lovers Page and wine blogger Alder Yarrow did an excellent job responding to the resulting near hysteria, and I would like to add to their comments with a bit of science to help explain further the nature of this issue and why it is not an issue.

As an epidemiologist, I have spent many years conducting research in the Mississippi Delta region, a rich alluvial plain that is heavily farmed with cotton, soy beans, rice, corn, and other vegetables as well as a substantial catfish farming industry.

Our research focused on documenting the health effects for the residents of this Delta region from acute and chronic exposure to agricultural herbicides and pesticides, including lead, arsenic, and other heavy metal chemicals, which are used extensively in farming operations.

As with most things in our environment, too much of a good thing can be harmful or even fatal in some circumstances. For example, too much water can cause serious injuries and death. While there are some serious consequences of ingesting large amounts of arsenic, the primary issue is long term exposure such as in farm workers and residents of areas where agricultural chemicals are used.

Long term exposure to arsenic eventually can lead to a wide range of diseases in just about all body organs and system, with the most common being multi-system cancers. However, it can take as long as 60 years for these cancers to develop.

As stated by Garr and Yarrow, the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency have established safe levels of arsenic in drinking water. Arsenic is a naturally occurring chemical in the environment and varies in concentration from area to area. But it also can contaminate ground water from agricultural and manufacturing practices.

The current recommendation for arsenic in drinking water is 10 parts per billion (ppm), which is an exceedingly small number. This would be equivalent to 1 drop of ink in a 13,000 gallon swimming pool. Or to put it another way, one silver dollar in a roll that stretched from Las Vegas to New Orleans.

As Yarrow pointed out, many of our foods contain much higher levels of arsenic than that found in drinking water and some wines. For example, apple and pear juice contain 4 to 5 times the amount recommended for drinking water. The rational for this is based on the relative amounts of each liquid consumed. Why haven’t these facts raised an outcry even greater than what currently is happening with wine?

When applied to the reported amounts of arsenic found in some wines by the analytical company BeverageGrades, a person would have to drink one liter of the indicted wines every day to ingest about the same amount of arsenic they are exposed to in their daily intake of drinking water. Alcohol toxicity and alcoholism would be far greater health problems over time than the tiny amount of arsenic consumed.

As a person who has conducted extensive research into the health effects of arsenic, I have absolutely no concerns about the minuscule amounts of arsenic in my wines. Yes, in a perfect world we would like for our foods, beverages, and air to be pristine, but that will never be the case. We should take comfort in the knowledge that the human body is exquisitely capable of handling a wide variety of contaminates we encounter every day. This latest health scare is nothing but a greedy, bald-faced, and I believe unethical effort to deceive the public into believing there is a serious health risk associated with some wines and to seduce wineries into rushing to pay for unnecessary analytical tests by the company that has promulgated this charade.

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