Dear Dr. Blonz: I read recently that some people did a chemical analysis of white wines and found them to have five to 10 times the amount of arsenic that is allowed in an equal amount of drinking water. I was all set to throw my stash out when a friend suggested that we drink far more water than white wine, ergo the arsenic intake would not be harmful. Please offer your thoughts. Sincerely, B.R., via email
Dear B.R.: This is an evolving issue where there may be uncertainty over who or what to believe. Here is a brief background, and a number of links for follow-up. To start with, arsenic is a naturally occurring element (chemical symbol: As) that is distributed throughout nature. It tends to be present at varying levels in geological formations and, as a result, it can also be found in groundwater. It then is naturally taken up by fish and plants, and can also be found in animals that consume them. Arsenic is also found in various commercial products, including wood preservatives, fertilizers, paints, dyes and semiconductors. Various industrial practices, such as smelting and coal burning, release arsenic into the environment. Arsenic is considered a potent poison because it can interrupt essential reactions in the human metabolism. Acute overexposures can be fatal, but chronic exposures at sub-toxic levels can also cause problems. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has an information page on arsenic exposure (tinyurl.com/btcrc3o).
The toxicity of arsenic depends on its chemical (oxidation) state. Inorganic arsenic, which is found in geological formations, mines and groundwater, is considered the most toxic. Organic arsenic, which represents the forms of arsenic that have been taken up by plants and animals and made a part of their biochemical substance, is less harmful. (Depending on the circumstance, a plant, fish or animal can contain both forms at the same time.)
The human body has a means, albeit slow, to eliminate unwanted arsenic. The most critical element, of course, is to avoid the possibility of an acute exposure to a dangerous level of any type of arsenic. If the body experiences chronic exposures at a lower level, such as from the water supply, the key is to avoid an intake of the more-toxic inorganic arsenic that exceeds the rate at which the body can send it on its way. The half-life of inorganic arsenic in the human body is about 10 hours, and about 70 percent leaves via the urine. The Environmental Protection Agency sets limits for arsenic in drinking water of 10 parts per billion (tinyurl.com/3eu8sws).
Back to your question about arsenic in wine: There are some lawsuits filed, and when you toss in the possibility of litigation, everyone tends to shut up, save those who have a personal interest in a certain slant on things. What to do in the meantime? I found a number of accounts worth reading. The first, by National Public Radio, is informative and provides needed perspectives (tinyurl.com/o8jwkjs). Another is from Snopes.com, a site that strives to inject objective perspectives into various "urban legends" (tinyurl.com/q485ext). For those interested in a more scientific approach, there is a fact sheet from the University of California at Davis with specific ranges and implications(tinyurl.com/krrbls8).
As one who enjoys a glass of wine, I will continue to follow this issue.
Send questions to: "On Nutrition," Ed Blonz, c/o Universal Uclick, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO, 64106. Send email inquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org. Due to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.