Linda Lombroso, email@example.com 6:38 p.m. EDT March 24, 2015
A class-action lawsuit in California claims 28 wineries are producing wines dangerously high in arsenic. While arsenic is a toxic substance, the amount of exposure determines health risk, says doctor.
If you found out your favorite wine might contain high levels of arsenic, would you stop drinking it?
That’s the quandary facing wine lovers, as news of a class-action lawsuit against 28 California wineries left many on the East Coast wondering if their daily glass of low-cost vino might actually pose a health risk.
The lawsuit, filed in California Superior Court, claims that wineries failed to warn consumers of the potential dangers of their “arsenic-tainted” wines — citing some as containing up to 500 percent more than the acceptable safe daily limit. Most of the wines are inexpensive white or blush varietals.
Arsenic occurs naturally in the environment, and can be found in soil, water, air, plants and animals. Inorganic chemical compounds containing arsenic — found in building products, manufacturing and arsenic-contamined water — are considered more toxic than organic compounds, according to the American Cancer Society. Exposure at high levels has been linked to certain types of cancer.
When it comes to arsenic toxicity, it all depends on the level of exposure, said Dr. Robert Amler, dean and professor of public health at New York Medical College, and cofounder of the Children’s Environmental Health Center of the Hudson Valley. “The quantity, or dose, is the most important factor in determining what the health effects, if any, would be.”
Arsenic that is inhaled through industrial exposure can be deadly, said Amler, a pediatrician with Children’s and Women’s Physicians of Westchester. “Arsenic in food or drink also can be deadly in the highest concentrations, but we scarcely ever reach those concentrations.”
The Environmental Protection Agency’s acceptable limit — or “reference value” — for arsenic in drinking water is 10parts per billion, abbreviated as ppb.
“It’s not considered entirely or perfectly risk free, and that’s partly because it’s hard to study effects when it gets that low, and arsenic many times is accompanied by other contaminants that are also toxic,” said Amler.
Still, most people don’t drink as much wine as they do water. Even if a bottle of wine had 10 ppb of arsenic, you would need to drink 70 ounces to reach the daily EPA limit, said Amler. Using the same formula, it would take 14 ounces of wine a day, every day, containing 50 ppb of arsenic to reach the EPA limit.
Most of the arsenic found in wine comes from pesticides used in vineyards, he said.
“It appears right now that the risk in the wine, at worst, is uncertain,” said Amler. “It is probably not very high, but we can wait to learn more about exactly what’s being done, and of course there’s the hope that producers will take the necessary steps to lower the arsenic.”
Although “one or two” shoppers called Stew Leonard’s Wines of Yonkers with questions about arsenic, there are no plans to remove products cited in the lawsuit from store shelves, said wine specialist Paige Donahoo.
“Obviously, our greatest concern is for customers, and if they’re having a problem, we will exhange items or take them back,” said Donahoo. “But I’m not worried about drinking a glass of wine from these bottles myself.”
Tony Russo, owner of Aries Wines and Spirits in White Plains, said he’s more concerned about the “irresponsible publicity” generated by the lawsuit than the actual arsenic content of the wines in question.
“There’s no research that shows the amounts found in wine pose a health risk to consumers, and again we’re talking parts per billion,” said Russo. “What they’re doing is blowing this all out of proportion.”