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“Very High Levels of Arsenic” in Your Wine: What It Really Means

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On Thursday, a class-action lawsuit was filed against several winemakers, including Charles Shaw (aka “Two Buck Chuck”), Franzia, Ménage à Trois, and others. The reason? Arsenic levels as much as four to five times the EPA limit for drinking water.

Former wine distributor Kevin Hicks, now the founder of BeverageGrades—a laboratory dedicated to analyzing wines—decided to find out what exactly is in the wine you’re drinking, since there are essentially no federal labeling requirements. Of the roughly 1300 bottles of wine he tested, nearly 25% of them were over the federal limit for arsenic in drinking water.

Specific offenders included Charles Shaw White Zinfandel and Franzia White Grenache. The common link: lower-priced wines tended more often to be over the limit.

What Does Arsenic Do?

We all know arsenic sounds scary and poisonous, but I’d venture a guess that most of us don’t actually know what about it makes it harmful or what exactly its effects are. I’ll admit that I didn’t, so I did a little digging of my own. From Wikipedia:

The high affinity of arsenic(III) oxides for thiols is usually assigned as the cause of the high toxicity. Thiols, usually in the form of cysteine residues, but also in cofactors such as lipoic acid and coenzyme A, are situated at the active sites of many important enzymes.

Arsenic disrupts ATP production through several mechanisms. At the level of the citric acid cycle, arsenic inhibits lipoic acid, which is a cofactor for pyruvate dehydrogenase. In addition, by competing with phosphate, arsenate uncouples oxidative phosphorylation, thus inhibiting energy-linked reduction of NAD+, mitochondrial respiration and ATP synthesis. Hydrogen peroxide production is also increased, which, it is speculated, has potential to form reactive oxygen species and oxidative stress. These metabolic interferences lead to death from multi-system organ failure. The organ failure is presumed to be from necrotic cell death, not apoptosis, since energy reserves have been too depleted for apoptosis to occur.

Although arsenic causes toxicity, it can also play a protective role.

While that’s all very technical, the gist seems to be that arsenic can not only inhibit your cells’ ability to produce energy, it can also cause free radical damage, leading to organ failure. That said, there’s two sides to the coin, and arsenic is in fact necessary in trace amounts in “higher animals”.

So, 4-5 Times the Limit, That’s a Lot, Right?

Well let’s clear up one thing first. It’s actually 4-5 times the limit (and remember only in selected cases) for drinking water. There isn’t an established limit for wine, specifically, which is part of why this lawsuit is needed in the first place. It raises the question of whether wine needs to be held to the same standard as water that you drink every day. But just speaking in terms of raw numbers, it’s important to recognize that these are very small numbers we’re talking about. The limit for drinking water is 10 ppb (parts per billion). That means that one in every one hundred million molecules in the wine (give or take) is an arsenic atom. To give you a sense of just how small a part per billion is, it’d be roughly equivalent to a drop of water diluted into 250 chemical drums.

The question that raises is how accurate the testing really was. Could the equipment Hicks was using simply have been unable to accurately and precisely measure arsenic levels at that concentration? The answer is probably yes, and in fact since he took his data to lawyers, there have been two other independent tests run by other laboratories corroborating his findings. In short, this was no fluke.

So the Winemakers Are Going Down Then?

Well, not so fast. As I highlighted, we’ve been comparing the arsenic levels in these wines to drinking water, the legal limit for which was set in 2001 (down from 50 ppb—i.e., 5 times the current limit) and enforced starting in 2006. But wine is more similar to juice than to water, and the FDA actually has 23 ppb set as the “level of concern” in juices such as apple and grape. Furthermore, there’s a difference between organic and inorganic arsenic, and the level is specifically for inorganic arsenic in juice. This is relevant because in 2011, Dr. Oz showed arsenic levels in juice of up to 36 ppb, only to have the FDA do its own testing and show that even the worst offenders come in below the threshold as long as you actually make the effort to distinguish between the two types of arsenic.

So is Hicks measuring inorganic arsenic, or both together? For now, we don’t know. Nor do we know how much this really would impact consumers lives. After all, you’re not drinking more wine than water are you?

Ultimately, it’s probably best not to gamble with your health, and seeing as there are very specific wines in any given brand that are over the limit, it shouldn’t be hard to find cheap substitutes for your current favorites. Or, you could get fancy and spring for a $10 bottle of wine. Hey, it wouldn’t kill ya.

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