Wine has enjoyed a volatile reputation over the years. Considered sacred in ancient Egypt, it became sinful during the prohibition, an elitist indulgence in the post-war years, a health hazard in the 1960’s, and finally a healthy tonic that delivered antioxidants and heart health in recent decades. But now, some disturbing news may cause wine to undergo yet another redefinition.
According to a study out of Kingston University in London, many wines contain heavy metals up to 200 times the amount considered safe. The researchers measured “Target Hazard Quotients (THQ)” in wines from 15 countries throughout Europe, South America, and the Middle East. A THQ of one or more is considered unsafe, but according to the researchers, most wines came in at a whopping 50 to 200. To give you perspective, seafood considered dangerous usually falls between a THQ of one and five.
The Environmental Protection Agency established guidelines for safe levels of heavy metals based on frequent, long-term exposure, so ostensibly, drinking one glass of wine with a high THQ won’t have much impact on your health; drinking a glass every night for years most certainly will. Underlining this contention, Dr. Weiss of the University of Rochester commented: “Any time you see numbers like they have in this study, you begin to scratch your head and wonder about the effects over a long period of ingestion: Not one glass of wine last Tuesday, but a glass a day over a lifetime.”
The contaminating metals found in the wine included vanadium, copper, manganese, zinc, nickel, chromium, and lead. While all of these metals pose potential problems at toxic levels, manganese and lead are particularly troublesome, given their tendency to accumulate in the brain (manganese has been tied to Parkinson’s).
The only good news here is that Italian wines apparently are safe, so you can still enjoy your Chianti, as are wines from Argentina and Brazil. But forget wines from France (one of the worst offenders), Portugal, and Spain (see list here).
Shocking as it may be for consumers to learn that a $200 bottle of Chateau Margaux might actually be a toxic cocktail in disguise, it’s hardly news to those in the wine industry. Why else would the June 2008 issue of the industry journal Truewines carry a cover story about novel ways to measure the levels of arsenic, lead, copper, and cadmium in wine? Obviously, vintners know their wines contain heavy metals since they regularly measure them. Unfortunately, though the knowledge is out there that some wines contain off-the-chart levels of potentially dangerous substances (at least in industry inner circles), that knowledge hasn’t yet translated into regulatory or punitive measures for exceeding guidelines for safety — or modifications in the grape growing process or attempts to remove the heavy metals after the fact. It seems that as long as consumers keep buying, the world’s vintners are willing to live with the contamination.
And while we’re talking about contamination, let’s not stop with heavy metals. What about contamination with pesticides and known carcinogens — the most widespread of which is pyrimethanil, a possible carcinogen? Studies have shown that up to 75% of the wine from Europe (and yes, France takes the lead here too) are contaminated with multiple pesticides.
Are US wines safer? Probably, but not absolutely! The problem is that little data is available concerning the contamination of US wines. However, it’s most likely safe to say that if high levels of contamination were there to be found in US wines, the French government would surely have let us know by now — one would think.