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American Wine Is Full of Poison

Sixty-four of the 65 bottles sampled had levels of arsenic above the US Environmental Protection Agency maximum.
October 2, 2015, 2:00pm
Photo via Flickr user jenny downing

Wine isn't just about grapes. Climate, terroir, and the barrels all interact to make up the complex and delicious purple gold that burns fat, protects the human heart, and can even help liver cells.

But then there are the less, savoury—shall we say—ingredients which make their way into your favourite chardonnay during the fining process. Things like sturgeon bladder, blood, and crustacean exoskeletons are all present at trace levels in many wines. And now, you can add arsenic to that list.

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A researcher from the University of Washington sampled, and presumably drank, 65 bottles of American-made wine. Sixty-four of them contained traces of arsenic which exceeded the amount legally allowed in drinking water.

READ MORE: There's Blood and Bladders in Your Wine

Arsenic is an element which already exists within the human body at non-dangerous levels, but is also in rocks. Eventually, those rocks get battered by rain, wind, and rivers which then pump arsenic into the water and soil, finally making its way into the food chain.

Currently, the US Environmental Protection Agency allows a maximum of ten parts per billion (ppb) of arsenic in drinking water. Of the wines sampled which came from California, Washington, New York, and Oregon, arsenic levels ranged from ten to 76 ppb and averaged 24 ppb. Washington wines had the most arsenic, while Oregon wines had the least. Good job, Oregon.

More than half of the wines were also found to contain lead, but only 5 percent of those had levels above the federal limit of 15 ppb.

These numbers may sound miniscule, the author of the study, Denise Wilson, warns that these levels are sufficient enough to impact human health. "Consumers need to look at their diets as a whole," she said in a press release. "If you are eating a lot of contaminated rice, organic brown rice syrup, seafood, wine, apple juice—all those heavy contributors to arsenic poisoning—you should be concerned, especially pregnant women, kids, and the elderly."

Wilson added, "Unless you are a heavy drinker consuming wine with really high concentrations of arsenic, of which there are only a few, there's little health threat if that's the only source of arsenic in your diet."

Arsenic, which is best known as the go-to for murderers in old-school mystery novels, is more commonly used to preserve wood, manufacture bullets, and strengthen car batteries—clearly not ideal for human consumption.

But Wilson says that her aim is not to point the finger at specific vineyards. "My goal is to get people away from asking the question 'who do we blame?' and instead offer consumers a better understanding of what they're ingesting and how they can minimize health risks that emerge from their diets."

And those risks are very real. In toxic doses, arsenic can cause abdominal pain, diarrhea, vomiting, and dehydration. But then again, so can wine. And like wine, it would seem that arsenic is fine as long it's consumed in moderation.