‘Very High Levels of Arsenic’ in Top-Selling Wines

May 30, 2015 Updated: May 30, 2015

If you drink alcoholic beverages on occasion, wine could arguably be described as one of the “healthier” options. Red wine, in particular, is rich in antioxidants called polyphenols, including resveratrol.

Resveratrol’s antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anti-carcinogenic properties have been well-established by science, and its benefits are thought to extend to the prevention and treatment of chronic diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer’s disease, among others. 

Resveratrol is found in abundance in red wine, and it’s highly soluble in alcohol, which means your body may absorb more of it from red wine than from other sources. In fact, the resveratrol in red wine even has anti-aging properties that have been linked to increased lifespan.

Unfortunately, researchers have uncovered a problem in wine that has recently plagued other foods like apple juice and rice – high, potentially dangerous, levels of arsenic.

Concerning Levels of Arsenic Detected in Popular Wines

A class-action lawsuit filed in California states that wine drinkers have become “unwitting ‘guinea pigs’ of arsenic exposure,” after tests showed levels up to four and five times the maximum amount the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) allows for drinking water.

Of the more than 1,300 bottles of wine tested, nearly one-quarter had arsenic levels higher than the EPA’s maximum arsenic level for drinking water, which is 10 parts per billion (ppb).

Many of the wines mentioned in the lawsuit (nearly 30 companies representing 83 different labels in all) are considered low-cost brands that are popular among wine drinkers. Brands included Cupcake, Franzia, Flipflop, Rex Goliath, Korbel, and Trader Joe’s Charles Shaw Zinfandel (or “two-buck Chuck”).

The lawsuit is asking for monetary damages and a label to be added to the bottles disclosing the inorganic arsenic content as well as related health risks. It claims “just a glass or two of these arsenic-contaminated wines a day over time could result in dangerous arsenic toxicity to the consumer.”

David Hicks, owner of BeverageGrades, a lab that analyzes wine and which conducted the study, told CBS News: 

“The lower the price of wine on a per-liter basis, the higher the amount of arsenic.”

The wine industry has fired back, stating that even the highest level of arsenic found is half the level of arsenic allowed in Canada’s wine. While the US has no regulations concerning arsenic in wine, Canada’s allowable limit is 100 parts per billion, while Europe’s standard is 200 ppb. 

The lower the price of wine on a per-liter basis, the higher the amount of arsenic.
— David Hicks

Some have also pointed out a potential conflict of interest, since Hicks’ company sells alcohol analysis services and sent out a news release offering its services to provide “reassurance from arsenic in wine,” according to CNN.

Still, in general the less potential carcinogens in your wine, the better, so it’s probably best to follow the precautionary principle.

(Richard "Dick" Morgan/Flickr/CC BY-ND 2.0)
(Richard “Dick” Morgan/Flickr/CC BY-ND 2.0)

What Are the Health Risks of Inorganic Arsenic?

Arsenic occurs naturally in the earth and is released into rocks, soil, water, and air. It also gets into soil as a result of industrial pollution and arsenic-based pesticides that have been applied to soil. There are two primary types, inorganic, which is found in contaminated water and also released through industry and in building products (such as pressure-treated wood) and organic. 

Inorganic arsenic is far more dangerous than the organic variety. It is a powerful carcinogen that has been linked to an increased risk of several types of cancer, including bladder, kidney, lung, and skin. According to the EPA:

“Chronic inorganic arsenic exposure is known to be associated with adverse health effects on several systems of the body, but is most known for causing specific types of skin lesions (sores, hyperpigmentation, and other lesions) and increased risks of cancer of the lungs and skin.”

Other impacts of chronic arsenic exposure include, according to the EPA:

Screen Shot 2015-05-28 at 5.18.32 PM


Food Is the Largest Source of Arsenic Exposure for Most People

Unless you work in an industry that uses arsenic (such as a smelting plant), your largest source of exposure to arsenic is probably going to be your food. Although most arsenic in food is the less toxic organic form, inorganic arsenic does occur naturally in some foods. According to the American Cancer Society:

The highest levels of arsenic (in all forms) in foods can be found in seafood, rice, rice cereal (and other rice products), mushrooms, and poultry, although many other foods can contain low levels of arsenic.

Rice is of particular concern because it is a major part of the diet in many parts of the world. It is also a major component of many of the cereals eaten by infants and young children. (Nearly all rice products have been found to contain at least some arsenic, although the levels can vary widely.)”

Rice has been shown to accumulate 10 times more arsenic than other grains, due to physiology and growing conditions, and is an ingredient of “moderate” concern in rice and rice-based processed foods, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG). EWG reported:

In 2012, the independent, highly regarded Consumer Reports research organization made public tests indicating that arsenic concentrations commonly exceeded 100 parts per billion in rice, rice flour, crackers, pasta, hot and cold breakfast cereals, and infant cereal… 

Arsenic levels in rice milk often surpassed 10 parts per billion, the maximum allowed in drinking water.”