A new University of Washington study that tested 65 wines from America's top four wine-producing states -- California, Washington, New York and Oregon -- found all but one have arsenic levels that exceed what's allowed in drinking water.
Arsenic is a widely-occurring contaminant which occurs both naturally and as a result of human activity. Found naturally in rocks, arsenic leaches into water and soil as the stone is eroded by wind or the movement of water, and from there it then works its way into the food chain. However, arsenic has been brought into the environment also by its use in different applications such as pesticides and wood protection. For decades the USA was number one in arsenic consumption on a global scale. In 1998, 30,300 t (metric tons) of arsenic, contained mostly in compound form, was imported into the United States, mainly from the People’s Republic of China. Because arsenic-based pesticides were commonly used in U.S. agricultural production up until 1970, trace levels of arsenic can be detected in some agricultural settings, which could lead to small amounts of arsenic in certain foods and beverages, including apples, according to the FDA.
Arsenic appears in many different forms, which can be either organic (i.e. containing carbon) or inorganic. Food is the main source of exposure to arsenic for the general population in Europe and the US. The inorganic forms of arsenic are more toxic as compared to the organic arsenic but so far most of the occurrence data in food collected in the framework of official food control are still reported as total arsenic without differentiating the various arsenic species.
According to WHO, long-term exposure to arsenic from drinking-water and food can cause
cancer and skin lesions. It has also been associated with developmental
effects, cardiovascular disease, neurotoxicity and diabetes.The new study
A total of 65 representative wines from the top four wine-producing states in the U.S. were analyzed for arsenic content by using ICP-MS methodology . All samples contained arsenic levels that exceeded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA) exposure limit for drinking water of 10 parts per billion (ppb) and all samples contained inorganic arsenic.
The wine samples ranged from 10 to 76 parts per billion, with an average of 24 parts per billion. Wines produced in the state of Washington had the highest levels of arsenic (average 28 parts per billion) and Oregon had the lowest (average 13 parts per billion). The reason red wines were selected for this study is the fact that arsenic tends to concentrate in the grapes' skins, which are removed for white wine production.
Despite their findings, the researchers said the average red wine drinker doesn't need to be too alarmed. “Unless you are a heavy drinker consuming wine with really high concentrations of arsenic, of which there are only a few, there’s little health threat if that’s the only source of arsenic in your diet,” explained Denise Wilson, author of the paper published in the Journal of Environmental Health, in a statement. Alongside the study looking specifically at red wine, Wilson also authored a companion paper looking into the overall health risks from arsenic in the average diet.
In fact, in the second study, Wilson found that a woman eating a medium sized portion of rice would get around 50% of her maximum recommended daily dose of arsenic from that single source alone. So the dangers come when you start eating many high-level arsenic foods each day. Wilson hopes that by giving consumers a better understanding of what it is they’re eating, they can then make informed decisions as to how they can minimize any potential health risks in their diet.
There are hundreds of studies related to heavy metals and metalloids in wine. Most of these studies are trying to use the mineral composition of wine as a fingerprint to identify its origin and authenticity. Other studies try to evaluate the health risk of consumers imposed by toxic metal species. While U.S. wine-makers play an important role for the U.S. market as well as on the global scale, very little is known in the scientific literature on the current elemental composition of American wines [1-3] and some older reports are outdated [4-7].
Actually arsenic in wine has a long history and relatively high arsenic concentrations have been found in American wines already in 1905 . The authors of this more than 100 years old study are discussing a long list of possible contaminants that may have contaminated the wine with arsenic. Since inorganic arsenic is classified as carcinogenic, the wine consumer hopes that these days are gone and such contamination no longer occuring.
Unfortunately, the new study presented here does not provide the
information necessary to assure that wine-making practice in the US has
overcome such problems. While this study is the first peer-reviewed in
decades to look at the level of arsenic of American wines, the results
are not that new. In march this year, analytical results of Californian
wines presented by the private laboratory "BeverageGrades" made it into
the news headlines (see below). Interestingly these results showed
especially high values in cheap white wines. Based on these results, a
class-action lawsuit has been filed March 19 in California that claims
some of the country's top selling wines have high levels of the element:
up to four and five times the maximum amount the Environmental
Protection Agency (EPA) allows for drinking water, reports CBS News
correspondent Carter Evans.
As the author of the study admits, the study has several limitations that limit its information value. First, a limited number of wines were sampled and especially white wines nearly excluded so that generalizability may be limited. The reasoning for selecting red wines by the author is based on the fact that normally higher amounts of metals contained in the grapes end up in the wine for red wines compared to white wines. However this leads to higher concentration of metals in wine only for those cases were the metals are already present in the grapes.
Secondly only the end-product wine was analyzed for arsenic (and lead) but not the vineyard soil nor the grapes or any product during the production such as the must. For this reason, the source of the arsenic in the wine could not be traced and the explanation that different arsenic concentrations can probably be related to natural abundance of arsenic in the soil remains speculation. Interestingly, the levels of arsenic found in American red wine are higher than those reported for European red wines which often contain
less than 10 parts per billion [8-18] even when the vineyard soil is contaminated by arsenic originating from mining activities [8-9]. As factors enhancing arsenic in the wine, enhanced soil content, ground water contamination  and use of pesticides  were identified. Some researchers investigated the concentration changes of elements during the wine-making process [1, 13, 19] and an enhancement of arsenic concentration was found from the grapes towards the wine .
Two years ago, high arsenic was found in German beer and the filtration process was identified to be the source of the contamination
. Actually, very similar filtration processes are used also in wine-making using additives such as bentonite [21, 22], diatomite  or perlite which should be considered as potential arsenic contaminants.
Thirdly only total arsenic was determined rather than the arsenic species. However, only arsenic speciation can be used to evaluate the health risk imposed by the contamination. The author of the study is very carefully arguing that the health risk from the arsenic in wine depends on the amount of wine consumed and the relation with other dietary arsenic sources. While it is true that there is no reason to panic there is also no reason to ignore the exposure as being irrelevant. Inorganic arsenic is carcinogenic and even small amounts may add to the overall health risk. Despite the much lower arsenic concentration in European wines, some epidemiological studies in Europe could identify wine as an important dietary source for arsenic [24, 25]. An exposure model for consumers in the US  based on the NHANES data for 2003-2004 is estimating the total arsenic exposure from food as 0.38 µg/kg/day, which is approximately 14 times higher than the mean As exposures from the drinking water. Also wine and beer have been identified as a major sources of arsenic in people's diets, according to a study that analyzed the diets of 852 people in New Hampshire, and the levels of arsenic in their toenails, which show long-term exposure to the chemical .
In view of the fact that inorganic arsenic is carcinogenic and therefore exposure should be minimised, some researchers dispute the current regulation of 10 parts per billion of arsenic in drinking water as not adequate to assure the safety for consumers. Of course it seems even more questionable to allow for an upper threshold of 100 parts per billion in wine, set by Health Canada, or an even higher limit of 200 parts per billion which is the limit set by OIV, an International intergovernmental organization of vine and wine !
Due to the limitations of the new study, the valuable information presented is evoking more questions than giving answers. More work in this direction is needed in order to identify the source of the contamination. Meanwhile the consumer has various possibilities to minimize his personal exposure by careful selection of products.
Michael Sperling The original studies
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Related EVISA Resources Brief summary: ICP-MS: A versatile detection system for speciation analysis Brief summary: LC-ICP-MS: The most often used hyphenated system for speciation analysis Link Database: Toxicity of arsenic species Link Database: Analytical methods for the determination and speciation of arsenic Brief summary: Speciation and Toxicity Link Database: Human exposure to arsenic from the diet
Related (EVISA) News November 14, 2013: Arsenic speciation in rice cereals for infants July 23, 2013, BeverageDaily: Scientist explains higher arsenic levels in German beers May 15, 2013: Arsenic species in rice: Origin, uptake and geographical variation September 21, 2012: Arsenic in Rice : First results from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration January 4, 2011: Arsenic species in rice: Call for analytical laboratories August 2, 2010: Gut bacteria transform inorganic arsenate leading to more toxic arsenic species May 19, 2010: China: Inorganic Arsenic in Rice - An Underestimated Health Threat ? February 23, 2010: US EPA opens inorganic arsenic cancer assessment for public review December 4, 2009: EFSA: Scientific Opinion on Arsenic in Food May 26, 2009: UK Food Standards Agency releases research on arsenic in rice milk January 31, 2009: Using the right recipe for cooking rice reduces toxic inorganic arsenic content November 11, 2008: EFSA calls for data on arsenic levels in food and water September 5, 2008: Exposure to inorganic arsenic may increase diabetes risk March 15, 2008: Arsenic in rice milk exceeds EU and US drinking water standards February 15, 2008: Arsenic speciation in rice: a question of the rice plant species December 26, 2007: The effect of thermal treatment on the arsenic speciation in food March 7, 2007: Elevated Arsenic Levels Found In Rice Grown In South Central States of the USA
WHO: Arsenic fact sheet
FSANZ: Arsenic in Food
OIV: International Organisation of Vine and Wine (Rules for European Wine)
Chemistry World: Beer filtration could add arsenic
BeverageGrades: Selection of American Wines Lower in heavy Metals
TaintedWine: Information about a lawsuit filed March 19, 2015 in California Superior Court
January 18, 2006: Hungarians exposed to high arsenic levels in drinking wate
r August 3, 2005: Surprisingly high concentrations of toxic arsenic species found in U.S. rice May
15, 2005: Use of organoarsenicals as pesticides may lead to
contamination of soils and groundwater with toxic arsenic species
last time modified: October 17, 2015