|(source: I found this image all over the internet, including here and here)|
Nothing I like better than sitting in the cockpit drinking a glass of wine to celebrate the sunset. Unless it's drinking two glasses of wine, with friends. Scary stories have been circulating recently about arsenic in inexpensive California wine. The whole "crisis" encapsulates all my frustrations about working in application of science to public policy a decade ago.
Please don't buy into this wine scare silliness. This is such junk science. There's so many things wrong with the story, I'm not sure where to start. So I'll start with the most basic.
First, they are using the wrong standard. The levels of arsenic that they are reporting as potentially problematic are based on drinking water standards. Those standards are calculated based on drinking the recommended 8 glasses of water per day, every day of your life, for 70 years. But that's water. It makes no sense to worry about arsenic at that level in wine, because we'd be talking about someone who drinks 3 bottles of wine (13 glasses!) Every.Single.Day. That's how much wine you'd have to drink for arsenic at the drinking water level to potentially hurt you. But of course if you're drinking 3 bottles of wine per day, you've got much bigger problems. You'd die of cirrhosis of the liver long before you had problems from the arsenic! Canada understands this; their standard for arsenic in wine is ten times the US drinking water standard. The concentration of arsenic in highest wine noted in the lawsuit is well below the Canadian standard. In fact, it's only about half the Canadian. The European standard for wine is even higher, twice the Canadian. (source)
Second, there are other scientific problems. There are different forms of arsenic and their toxicity varies greatly. "...most simple organic arsenic compounds (such as methyl and dimethyl compounds) are less toxic than the inorganic forms and that some complex organic arsenic compounds are virtually non-toxic..." (source) The articles about the lawsuit don't say which variety they have tested for, or whether they separated them at all.
"A large source of total arsenic comes from the food we eat. However, most of the arsenic in food is in an organic (carbon containing) form which is much less harmful than the inorganic arsenic found primarily in groundwater. Some foods also contain inorganic arsenic but the main exposure to inorganic arsenic is normally from consuming water." (source)I'm pretty sure grapes are a food, so presumably they have the less-dangerous organic form of arsenic in their juice, while the drinking water standard is set to protect against the more-dangerous inorganic form. (edited to add: This article at least mentions the organic/inorganic distinction, but they don't quantify how much is inorganic except to say "unacceptable." What does unacceptable mean? Unacceptable to who? What is the actual concentration? They should state it. Unless they can't, because the number isn't scary enough.)
Third, another scientific problem is that there are many things we don't understand about arsenic metabolism. We know that some populations are more sensitive than others. People in Bangladesh, and high in the Andes, drink water with arsenic concentrations one hundred times the US limit with no apparent ill effect. (source) This may be because of genetic predisposition on the part of these people, or a kind of adaptation as their bodies learned to deal with the arsenic, but either way it hints that it will be complicated to develop a single number for a standard to protect everyone.
Fourth, wine gets its flavors from the complex terrior, the climate and the chemistry of the soil the grapes grow in. Which means if you plant the same grapes in a different place, you get a different wine. Arsenic occurs naturally in soil and water, more in some geologies than others. (source) Then it gets taken up in the plants grown in that soil and watered with that water. It's unjust to imply that the companies' sloppy (or nefarious!) practices are to blame for its presence in their product. But it does make good media sales, to point to a villain.
Fifth, the guy filing the lawsuit is far from a disinterested party here. He could gain financially by fomenting this scare...a lot. He owns a food-testing company, so there's a major problem with conflict of interest there; my favorite article summing up the problem explains. (source) One of my contacts in the wine industry stated that this guy who brought the suit has done this kind of thing before. In fact I'm surprised he was even judged to have legal standing to file a suit, since neither he nor anyone else has ever proved, or even claimed, that they were actually harmed by arsenic in wine. (source)
And with all that, a lot of politics went into setting the US and state drinking water standards at the level they are. I was the person supervising the scientists who were doing to research to develop those standards back around 1998-2002, so I've got the inside scoop. Bottom line: pour yourself a glass of (nice California red) wine and relax about this issue. Unless you've got some unusual sensitivity or underlying condition, this is not a problem, ever.