California Wines Cited for High Levels of Arsenic

By now, we all accept that the cheap wine known as "Two-Buck Chuck" (though it might be more accurate to call the Charles Shaw wine "Three-Buck Chuck" because of inflation) has its place. It's definitely for college kids who don't have a whole lot of discretionary income, but also for full-blown adults who just want something cheap to drink at an outdoor concert. And certainly it's useful to bring to parties where you don't want to drop serious coinage.

Unfortunately, it turns out that we may not have just been sacrificing our taste buds. We also may have been poisoning ourselves with arsenic.

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That's the case being made in a lawsuit filed in L.A. Superior Court last week. The suit comes from a commercial lab called BeverageGrades, who tested a bunch of cheap California-made wines, including the Charles Shaw white Zinfandel sold at Trader Joe's, and found that many of them contain "very high levels of arsenic."

Arsenic, as you may know, is a carcinogen that can lead to all sorts of serious health problems. Take it away, EPA:

Non-cancer effects can include thickening and discoloration of the skin, stomach pain, nausea, vomiting; diarrhea; numbness in hands and feet; partial paralysis; and blindness. Arsenic has been linked to cancer of the bladder, lungs, skin, kidney, nasal passages, liver, and prostate.

It's not something you want to consume in large doses. Consumers of cheap California wine are understandably worried about this news. But how serious is this claim?

"The levels I saw were what I would say is not alarming, but undesirable," said Allan Smith, the director of the Arsenic Health Effects Research Program at UC Berkeley. "The reason they're not alarming is that the levels are close to what was in the drinking water standard not so long ago."

The highest amount of arsenic tested in the wine was 50 parts per billion. For comparison's sake, the current allowable arsenic level in drinking water -- according to both the EPA and the State of California, albeit in unnecessarily different concentration ratios -- is 10 parts per billion. The added 40 parts per billion, then, is an uptick from what's allowable. Which, to be sure, isn't a good thing.

"It doesn't mean to say there are not health effects there, and that it's not undesirable to be consuming fluids that don't meet the drinking water standards," said Smith. "But it's not something you should start getting frightened about."

However, the biggest worry for Smith is not the arsenic levels being what they are, but the fact that no one's sure why there's arsenic in these wines.

"Years ago, there were high levels of arsenic in wine because of the pesticides we used on vineyards," said Smith. "That ceased to be a source. And the question now would be where is this arsenic coming from? Is it in the original source? Is it part of the process that something is contaminated somewhere along the line in the various steps of going from grapes to the actual final product?"

A simple starting point would be to test the grapes themselves. If those don't show elevated levels of arsenic, then move to the next step in the process. "They ought to be able to find that out pretty easily and solve that," said Smith.

But that's only part of the problem, according to Smith. In addition to figuring out the cause, it's also necessary to bring everything we drink to the standards we already have in place for our drinking water. "I would prefer to see [appropriate labeling] on the bottle if it doesn't meet the drinking water standard," said Smith. "Let the consumer know and they can choose a different wine."

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