Yes, There’s Arsenic In Your Cheap Wine. Now Relax

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Wow. So apparently a class action lawsuit has been brought against makers of low-price-point California wines that have been found to contain nightmarishly-high levels of arsenic. First, here is the list of implicated wines. Do you drink these wines? Scary? Scary!

This suit has touched off a high profile volley of wine-pundits and scientists, both actual and pseudo, over whether the claims hold water. Some people are saying there is misinformation and exaggeration. Some people, like this guy, are crying hoax.

You’re a hardworking IT professional or project manager who leans on Trader Joe’s for reasonable grocery receipts and you love the feeling of not having to sell a kidney to buy wine, because let’s face it, you can metabolize it way better with two kidneys. How do you know if you have a major shopping dilemma, or indeed a simmering health crisis, on your hands?

Long story short, it ain’t just Two Buck Chuck that’s dirty – this whole fracas is suspect. So here’s a quick primer on Poison from another person with no credentials in science but a pretty intense number of field hours in wineries.

How does wine get contaminated with arsenic?

Arsenic is a poison that naturally occurs in soil. (Atomic number 33 on the periodic table of elements.) Plant roots can assimilate it in the natural course of growth. It can be a component of pesticides. It can also enter wine that is filtered for clarity using bentonite clay. Arsenic is present in drinking water and in a variety of foods. Federal regulations stipulate 10ppb as an acceptable arsenic level for drinking water based on a projected consumption of two liters per person per day. There is no established “safe” level for wine in the US, but may I suggest that if you drink 2 liters of wine a day, you just might have bigger problems than arsenic?

Yes, okay, but seriously, I have a pretty intense Ménage à Trois Moscato habit. Am I at risk?

In my professional opinion you are very much at risk for a dull throbbing headache behind your eyeballs.

As for arsenic poisoning, probably not. Even if some of these wines weigh in at 50ppb instead of 10 – and even that is being debated – you’re probably not drinking a large enough volume of them to be affected.

Arsenic poisoning isn’t very subtle. You’d double down on that headache with a worse headache, plus gastric distress, convulsions, creepy spots on your skin, and coma. If you are experiencing symptoms of poisoning, and you are a devoted drinker of any of the brews on the list, by all means, get it checked out.

Why are high-end wines not implicated in this hoo-hah?

Well, the short answer is “Because that’s not who’s being sued.” The plaintiff in this suit “noticed a pattern” in which price point per liter correlated with higher arsenic levels.

I’m wondering if media outlets and the eternally gullible and outrage-forward Court of Public Opinion are a teensy smidge readier to believe contamination claims against cheap wines. Maybe the vast preponderance of the “scarable” wine-buying public isn’t stocking their cellars with thousand dollar bottles. And here’s a fun fact: the folks who brought the suit just happen to sell a service that purports to test and assure the purity of the wine you’re quaffing.

What should I do?

You should drink wine that works for you. My personal prejudices around “works for you” include deliciousness, preferably sustainably-rendered deliciousness, and preferably deliciousness that does not make me need a second mortgage. Your prejudice-mileage may vary. The evidence so far seems to indicate that the Poison Wine debacle is largely a bunch of hooey, but expect debate to continue on that. If you’re concerned about how clean your wine is, and that is a worthy concern, seek out wineries that aggressively limit their environmental impacts. They might be certified organic, they might be completely or partially biodynamic, they probably pay close attention to their water footprint, and they probably run smaller scale operations, pay employees reasonably, and generally try to observe a Do No Harm ethic. They probably cost more than the wines listed in the class action. And that is probably justified, and worth supporting.

Arsenic is a dangerous toxin, but, um… so is alcohol. And sometimes so is the news.

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