One of the oldest poisons known to humans is increasingly being found in high levels in wine. A new study of wines produced in the United States is the latest to show elevated levels of arsenic.
This toxic heavy metal is linked to health risks even at low exposures. And because arsenic is also found in drinking water and other foods, like rice and seafood, researchers are growing more concerned about cumulative arsenic exposure through our diets.
High Arsenic in Wine Widespread in U.S.
Researchers at the University of Washington tested 65 wines, mostly reds, from California, Washington, New York, and Oregon. All but one of the wines contained arsenic levels that exceed those allowed in drinking water by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (no more than 10 parts per billion of arsenic). The wine sampled in the study contained an average of 24 parts per billion, and some were much higher.
As a group, the American wines had higher arsenic levels than their European counterparts. Furthermore, the arsenic levels in American wines were greater than levels found in other foods commonly found to contain arsenic.
The study’s author came to this conclusion: “Arsenic levels in American wines exceeded those found in other studies involving water, bottled water, apple juice, apple juice blend, milk, rice syrup, and other beverages. When taken in the context of consumption patterns in the U.S., the pervasive presence of arsenic in wine can pose a potential health risk to regular adult wine drinkers.”
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Arsenic Health Dangers
Arsenic is a potent carcinogen and is poisonous to a number of body systems—the nervous and immune systems among them. Acute arsenic intoxication can easily kill you—causing multiple organ failure. But most of us will never ingest enough at one time for this to happen. Instead, we’re exposed to low levels throughout our lives through food and water.
The more arsenic you ingest over time, the more you’re at risk for whole host of wide-ranging health issues, from increased risk of infections to diabetes, depression, dementia, and cancer.
- Lung diseases. You don’t have to inhale arsenic in order for it to damage your lungs. Exposure to arsenic in drinking water during early childhood is associated with an increased risk of death from lung cancer and non-cancerous lung diseases.
- Arsenic exposure could be contributing to your low mood or clinical depression, according to numerous studies. Even very low chronic arsenic exposure from drinking water (at levels below the EPA’s and WHO’s cut-off points) is significantly associated with poor mental health, particularly depression.
- Arsenic is a well-documented potent human carcinogen, causing cancer in skin, lungs, bladder, kidney and, possibly, liver. Ingesting arsenic-contaminated food is estimated to cause hundreds of thousands of cases of skin, lung, and bladder cancer each year around the world.
- Dementia and poor memory. Long-term low-level exposure to arsenic is significantly correlated with poorer scores in global cognition, processing speed, immediate memory, language, visuospatial skills, and executive functioning. These are the same areas of cognitive function that reflect the earliest manifestations of Alzheimer’s disease.
- Cardiovascular disease. Long-term, low-level arsenic ingestion is associated with high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease, including ischemic heart disease as well as atherosclerosis of the carotid arteries and of the arteries that supply the brain. Even in children, arsenic ingestion is linked with higher blood pressure and abnormal heart function.
- Long-term exposure to low-level arsenic ingestion is associated with a significantly increased risk of diabetes.
- Infectious diseases. Arsenic lowers the immune system’s ability to resist viruses, bacteria, and parasites. A recent study of mothers in the U.S. found that exposure to arsenic during pregnancy increases the child’s immune development and susceptibility to infections early in life.
You Should Be Concerned About Arsenic in Wine
Clearly, avoiding the consumption of wines containing higher-than-recommended levels of arsenic is a good idea. Because there is no easy way to know which wines are safe, regular wine drinkers should limit their consumption to an occasional indulgence.
For those not willing to give up their regular wine drinking habit, there are a number of things that can be done limit exposure to arsenic as well as to mitigate arsenic’s potential health risks.
Reduce your consumption of other foods known to be excessively high in arsenic, particularly rice and rice products (especially anything made with brown rice syrup, such as cereal bars). Other foods found to contain arsenic include apple juice, milk, broth (beef and chicken), salmon, and tuna.
Increase nutrients known to promote arsenic detoxification and protect against arsenic-induced oxidative damage.  These include:
- Folate and vitamin B12. Supplementation with folate and vitamin B12 increases arsenic detoxification by promoting the key detoxification pathway known as methylation. In this way, B12 and folate supplementation protects against arsenic-induced liver and kidney tissue destruction and DNA damage.
- Vitamins C and E. These are two of the most powerful antioxidant vitamins, and each has been found to protect the body from arsenic’s damaging effects.
- Selenium and zinc. These are two essential minerals are both powerful antioxidants that Furthermore, making sure your body has sufficient levels of essential minerals like selenium and zinc is believed to help resist the uptake of toxic metals like arsenic.[14-16]
- Green tea. Numerous studies support the ability of green tea to protect against arsenic toxicity.
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Originally published in 2015, this post is regularly updated by the editors of University Health News.