By Dr. Mercola
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.1
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,”2 after tests showed levels up to four and five times the maximum amount the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) allows for drinking water.3
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”).4
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."5
David Hicks, owner of BeverageGrades, a lab that analyzes wine and which conducted the study, told CBS News: 6
"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.
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.7
Still, in general the less potential carcinogens in your wine, the better, so it’s probably best to follow the precautionary principle.
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:8
"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:
Kidney damage and failure Anemia Low blood pressure Shock Headaches Weakness Delirium Increased risk of diabetes Adverse liver and respiratory effects, including irritation of mucous membranes During development, increased incidence of preterm delivery, miscarriage, stillbirths, low birth weight, and infant mortality During childhood, decreased performance in tests of intelligence and long-term memory Skin lesions
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:9
“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:10
“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.”
Is US Rice Riskiest of All?
Arsenic levels vary significantly between samples, but in the US, rice is frequently grown on land previously used to grow cotton, on which arsenic-based pesticides were heavily used.
According to research by Andrew Meharg, professor of Biogeochemistry at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland, American-grown rice has among the highest average inorganic arsenic levels in the world.11
US rice contains nearly three times more arsenic than Basmati rice imported from Nepal, India, and Pakistan. Egyptian rice has the lowest inorganic arsenic levels of all. If you are consuming rice milk, rice flour, rice pasta, and whole rice on a regular basis, the levels of arsenic could easily add up.
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has also tested 1,100 rice and rice products and concluded “the amount of detectable arsenic is too low in the rice and rice product samples to cause any immediate or short-term adverse health effects.”12
However, this says nothing about the long-term effects, especially when consumed along with other sources of inorganic arsenic, like drinking water or wine. Unfortunately, the signs and symptoms of chronic arsenic exposure can easily be overlooked or misdiagnosed as something else. For example, early symptoms include:
- Gastrointestinal problems
- Skin discoloration or lesions, including hyperkeratosis
- Chronic fatigue syndrome
Chronic long-term exposure also increases your risk of:
- Various cancers
- High blood pressure
- Reproductive problems
Arsenic Has Also Been Detected in Apple Juice
Aside from rice, the FDA has been monitoring levels of arsenic in apple juice for about two decades. Here, too, they stated that “samples contain levels of arsenic that are low, with few exceptions.” In 2012, they related data showing 95 percent of the apple juice samples tested were below 10 ppb total arsenic, and 100 percent of the samples were below 10 ppb for inorganic arsenic, the carcinogenic form of arsenic.13
In 2013, they proposed an “action level” of 10 ppb for inorganic arsenic in apple juice, which is the same standard set for drinking water. Consumer Reports scientists had urged a much lower standard of 3 ppb for juice. It should be noted that while apple juice with arsenic was highly publicized, the compound was also detected in grape juice. Further, in an analysis of arsenic levels in juice drinkers compared to non-juice drinkers, Consumer Reports found a striking difference. According to Consumer Reports:14
“The resulting analysis of almost 3,000 study participants found that those reporting apple-juice consumption had on average 19 percent greater levels of total urinary arsenic than those subjects who did not, and those who reported drinking grape juice had 20 percent higher levels. The results might understate the correlation between juice consumption and urinary arsenic levels because NHANES urinary data exclude children younger than 6, who tend to be big juice drinkers.
‘The current analysis suggests that these juices may be an important contributor to dietary arsenic exposure,’ says Keeve Nachman, Ph.D., a risk scientist at the Center for a Livable Future and the Bloomberg School of Public Health, both at Johns Hopkins University. ‘It would be prudent to pursue measures to understand and limit young children's exposures to arsenic in juice.’”
Beer and Drinking Water May Also Contain Arsenic
It’s not only those who drink wine or apple juice, and eat rice, that need to be aware of dietary sources of arsenic. Beer drinkers should also take heed. The FDA tested 65 samples of beer, all of which contained some form of rice ingredients. Ten of them contained inorganic arsenic levels ranging from 15 ppb to 26 ppb.15
No further testing is planned, but it goes to show that getting a little bit of arsenic here and a little bit there can easily add up, especially if you drink a lot of beer, wine or juice, or consume a lot of rice and rice-based products. Tests have even found very high levels of inorganic arsenic in a variety of baby foods,16 which is particularly concerning. Arsenic exposure in utero and during early childhood is particularly problematic, as it can cause lasting harm to children's developing brains, and endocrine and immune systems. For example:17
- A 2004 study showed children exposed to arsenic in drinking water at levels above 5 ppb had lower IQ scores. Earlier studies have linked chronic arsenic exposure to a range of cognitive dysfunctions, including learning disabilities, memory problems, poor concentration, and peripheral and central neuropathies.
- A study published in 2011 examined the long-term effects of low-level exposure on more than 300 rural Texans whose groundwater was estimated to have arsenic at median levels below the federal drinking-water standard. It also found that exposure was related to poor scores in language, memory, and other brain functions.
Not only can the level of arsenic in US tap water be high due to natural groundwater contamination, but the most commonly used form of fluoride added to water supplies also tends to be contaminated with arsenic. Those with private wells may face even greater risks than those on public systems. If you have a well, you would be well advised to have your water tested and treated accordingly. For example, in Maine, where almost 50 percent of the population relies on private wells, the US Geological Survey has occasionally found arsenic levels in well water as high as 3,100 ppb! 18
Arsenic Has Even Been Fed to Chickens
Arsenic-based drugs were approved for use in animal feed in the US because they make animals grow quicker and make the meat appear pinker (i.e. "fresher"). The FDA has stated these products are safe because they contain organic arsenic, which is less toxic than the other inorganic form, which is a known carcinogen. The problem is, scientific reports surfaced stating that the organic arsenic could transform into inorganic arsenic, which has been found in elevated levels in supermarket chickens.
The inorganic arsenic also contaminates manure where it can eventually migrate into drinking water and may also be causing heightened arsenic levels in US rice. In 2011, Pfizer announced it would voluntarily stop marketing its arsenic-based feed additive Roxarsone, and in 2013, the FDA banned three out of four remaining arsenic drugs on the market. In the European Union, meanwhile, arsenic-based compounds have never been approved as safe for animal feed.
How to Protect Yourself and Your Family from Arsenic Exposure
The problem with arsenic similar to that of so many other toxins in our environment. While you won’t drop dead from drinking a glass of wine or eating a bowl of rice, the arsenic exposure accumulates and it may cause problems over time. As noted by Consumer Reports:19
“People sometimes say, ‘If arsenic exposure is so bad, why don’t you see more people sick or dying from it?’ But the many diseases likely to be increased by exposure even at relatively low levels are so common already that its effects are overlooked simply because no one has looked carefully for the connection,’ says Joshua Hamilton, Ph.D., a toxicologist specializing in arsenic research and the chief academic and scientific officer at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass.”
It’s probably not realistic to expect to eliminate all arsenic exposure, but you can certainly take steps to limit it. If you’re a wine drinker, for instance, you may want to limit your drinks in light of this new information (which you would want to do anyway from a health standpoint). You could also contact the wine’s manufacturer and ask about arsenic levels.
Another, probably more pressing, aspect is to address arsenic in your drinking water. If you have well water, it would be prudent to have your water tested for arsenic and other contaminants. If you have public water, you can get local drinking water information from the EPA.
If elevated arsenic levels are detected, install a water filter, such as a reverse osmosis or activated carbon system, to remove it. Other common-sense strategies to help cut down on your exposure include:
- Limit your child's juice consumption. This is a general guideline for optimal health anyway, as juices contain high amounts of fructose that if taken in large quantities can cause very serious health problems.
- Limit your rice consumption. This includes not only whole rice but also rice milk, rice crackers, and rice noodles. Do not allow children to drink rice milk and avoid feeding infants rice cereal.
- Buy organic, pastured chicken. Organic standards do not allow organically raised chickens to be given conventional feed grown with synthetic pesticides.
- Avoid processed baby food. Not only are many baby foods contaminated with potentially toxic chemicals, they also tend to be loaded with sugar and trans fats, and some may even contain genetically engineered ingredients.