Drink your wine, despite the arsenic

Before pouring your chardonnay down the drain, we spoke to a wine chemist from Cornell University about the science behind finding arsenic in our wine.

File - In this May 20, 2009 file photo a glass of white wine is swirled during a tasting in Oakville, Calif. More than two dozen California vintners are facing a lawsuit claiming their wines contain dangerously high levels of arsenic. The industry group Wine Institute dismissed the allegations as "false and misleading." (AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File)

ITHACA, N.Y. (MEDIA GENERAL) – A class action lawsuit accuses some of the country’s best selling wines of having dangerous levels of arsenic. But, before pouring your chardonnay down the drain, we spoke to a wine chemist from Cornell University about the science behind finding arsenic in our wine.

The Lawsuit

The suit cites a lab that tested more than 1,300 bottles of wines for arsenic levels. It found of those, 83 turned up levels of arsenic up to five times the amount the EPA approves for water, but still only half of Canada’s standard for wine. Two more labs did their own tests and got the same results.

Water and Wine

The Environmental Protection Agency’s maximum level of arsenic allowed in drinking water is 10 PPB (parts per billion). Keep in mind, you’re supposed to drink eight, eight ounce glasses of water per day.

“I hope you drink a lot more water than wine,” said Gavin Sacks, Associate Professor and wine chemist at Cornell University. Sacks works in the Food Science Department for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He said based on the fact that you’re only supposed to drink one to two glasses of wine per day, arsenic levels a little higher than water is not that alarming.

Dangers in Wine

What’s really dangerous in wine? According to Sacks, one to two drinks per day is associated with lower risk of cardio vascular disease. That health benefit is traced to ethanol. On the flip side, over consumption of alcoholic beverages is tied to lots of adverse health effects and those dangers are tied to ethanol. While arsenic is a toxic element in high quantities, ethanol will cause you problems first if you drink too much alcohol.

Why Europe Matters

Unlike the United States, Europe does have an arsenic limit for wine. According to Sacks, he would be shocked if the companies that produce the wine listed in the suit were not already aware of the arsenic levels in the wine. They are required to report that information to export wine to Europe and they’ve already likely done tests. It would not be profitable for the companies to produce different wines for the U.S. and Europe.

Cheaper Wines

Of the wines listed in the lawsuit, many can be purchased for less than $10. There is a reason more arsenic would be found in these cheaper wines, according to Sacks. Most of the wine grown in California is grown in the central valley and coast, not in Napa. Arsenic concentration of grapes will be based on the concentration in the soil. It’s not uncommon for regions that rely on irrigation to tend to have more arsenic, Sacks told us. Irrigation would be higher in the central valley and that’s where you generally find least expensive wines instead of in Napa Valley.

Fear of Arsenic

Arsenic is a scary sounding compound. It harkens back to Agatha Christie murder mystery novels. It also can be seriously dangerous. Long-term exposure to high levels of arsenic can lead to lung, skin and bladder cancer among other things.

Arsenic is also a very common compound and can be found in anything derived from a plant, according to Sacks. Arsenic based pesticides have been outlawed for a long time in the US. But, you’ll still find arsenic in many things because it is a naturally occurring element in soil. “This isn’t anything to be worried about. This has been happening for a millennia,” Sacks said.

We asked Sacks if the claims in the recent lawsuit will cause him to dump out his wine at home. His answer was very simple. “No,” he said. He did express concerns from some in the industry that the suit would cause the public to drink less wine and hurt the overall wine business.

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