Arsenic And California Wine: Do You Need To Worry?

I am what I have termed a blue collar wine snob. I’m picky about my wine and am even a member of a wine club, but I rarely pay more than $10 a bottle, mainly because I drink about two bottles a week. So when I caught a headline about popular wines supposedly containing enough arsenic to eventually cause cancer, you can bet I raised an eyebrow. CBS News reported last Thursday that “very high levels of arsenic” showed up in almost a quarter of 1,300 wines tested by independent Denver-based lab BeverageGrades. “Very high,” according to BeverageGrades founder and former wine distributor Kevin Hicks, meant four to five times more arsenic than the EPA standard for drinking water, which is 10 parts per billion (ppb), or 10 micrograms per liter (mcg/L).

Among the top-selling wines with three, four and five times the 10 ppb standard were, respectively, Trader Joe’s Two-Buck Chuck White Zinfandel, Ménage à Trois Moscato and Franzia White The Original Vacu Vin ... Best Price: $10.74 Buy New $6.89 (as of 11:35 EST - Details) Grenache. Hicks told CBS he noticed a trend of higher amounts of arsenic the cheaper the wine was on a per-liter basis.

The CBS report reads as alarmist — though they mention at the end that their own independent testing of four wines yielded arsenic levels above 10 ppb but much lower than BeverageGrades’ results — and Hicks clearly finds these results concerning enough that he’s filing a class action suit against more than two dozen wine makers and sellers for their unsafe products. He’s also, by the way, marketing his company’s testing services to wine makers who might be concerned about… arsenic in their wine. This news report and lawsuit could easily be seen as creating one’s own demand. But if we assume the BeverageGrades’ results are correct — a big “if” since the results have not been independently confirmed, the company has not described its methods, and the company is simultaneously attempting to sell winemakers its services after creating a news story — how much should you be concerned if you’re a regular wine drinker? Winco WB-4 4 Quart Win... Best Price: $9.96 Buy New $5.66 (as of 10:00 EST - Details)

The shortest answer, according to Kenneth Spaeth, MD, chief of occupational and environmental medicine at the North Shore-LIJ Health System in Great Neck, NY, is we don’t know yet.

“It’s a bit of dilemma for consumers right now because there’s so much information we don’t have,” he said. “I also know nothing about the methodology, about how these data were collected and how much consistency there was from sample to sample and bottle to bottle. Given all these gaps in the information, it’s hard to give advice about it, but some of the levels sound high enough to cautious about how much wine is being consumed.”

However, a bit of digging and math may offer a more reassuring answer at least for the time being. We can make some basic calculations based on the little we do know, again assuming the BeverageGrades findings are accurate (despite CBS’s findings of much lower amounts for the four wines they tested).

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