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Findings

Threat of arsenic in wine is low

Three or four glasses of red wine will put you at risk for a headache the next morning, but do you also have to be concerned about arsenic poisoning?

A new analysis of American red wines identified arsenic levels at or above the US Environmental Protection Agency’s exposure limit for drinking water in all 65 samples tested.

That sounds dire, but we can sip easy for now. The health threat from arsenic in wine is low unless one also eats a large amount of other contaminated foods, according to a second study by the same author.

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“Arsenic is a whole-diet issue,” says Denise Wilson of the University of Washington, author of both papers in this month’s issue of the Journal of Environmental Health. “We’ll never be able to point at one food, beverage, or supplier to fix the problem.”

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Wine drinkers may be familiar with recent concerns over arsenic in wine: Last March, a class action lawsuit in California alleged that 28 wineries knowingly produced wine contaminated with arsenic and didn’t tell consumers about it.

Arsenic is a naturally occurring element found in rocks, soil, water, even air. The US government does not currently set limits for arsenic levels in wine or food, but it does limit exposure in drinking water to 10 parts per billion. Long-term exposure to arsenic can increase one’s risk of several types of cancer, and the Department of Health and Human Services lists inorganic arsenic as a known human carcinogen.

Plants, including grape vines, absorb arsenic from soil and water. Wilson sampled wines from California, New York, Washington State, and Oregon. She picked exclusively red wines, as they are made with grape skins, which contain more heavy metal than pulp.

Analyzing each sample using two different methods, Wilson detected arsenic levels ranging from 10 to 76 parts per billion, with an average of 24 parts per billion.

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While above the EPA’s threshold for arsenic in water, those levels aren’t a major health concern by themselves, says Wilson. In the second study, she compiled consumption data on foods previously shown to contain significant levels of arsenic, including certain apple juices, cereal bars, rice, and infant formula sweetened with organic brown rice syrup, an alternative to high-fructose corn syrup.

“The largest risk is clearly to infants on formula containing those rice syrups,” says Wilson, citing a 2012 study from Dartmouth College analyzing two infant formulas with organic brown rice syrup and 15 infant formulas without. One of the syrup-containing formulas had arsenic levels at more than twice the limit for water.

But for adults, there’s no need to fear arsenic poisoning from Pinots or Cabernets, says Wilson. “If you are drinking red wine, don’t stop.” There was enough variation in the amount of arsenic among wineries that just switching up your red of choice should keep you out of harm’s way, she notes. For wine drinkers, that reassurance is something to toast to.

MEGAN SCUDELLARI