Arsenic is an element found in most foods. It can be harmful and lead to cancer if you’re exposed to high levels of it, which is why the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) strictly regulates the arsenic content of drinking water.
Unfortunately, some types of wine may contain unsafe levels of this element. This is partially due to the use of arsenic-containing pesticides in the past, as well as natural rock erosion.
This article reviews the arsenic content of wine, which types of wines have the highest levels, whether you should be concerned, and what to do if you suspect you have arsenic poisoning.
Arsenic is a naturally occurring element that’s present in trace amounts in almost all foods. In most cases, these amounts aren’t high enough to be harmful.
However, in high doses and over time, the element is toxic and can significantly increase your risk of developing lung, skin, and other types of cancer. Single episodes of high dose exposure can likewise cause short-term, or acute, poisoning (
As such, the EPA tightly regulates the arsenic content of drinking water, limiting it to no more than 10 parts per billion (ppb) (3).
In the past, farms in the United States and elsewhere depended on arsenic-based pesticides and herbicides. Although these products have been banned in the United States since the 1980s, they still cause problems today (
First, food grown in fields where these pesticides were once used are higher in arsenic than foods grown elsewhere.
Second, these pesticides have likely leached into the groundwater in many areas, increasing the arsenic content of the water supply (
Third, the natural and continuous erosion of rock can further increase the arsenic content of the water supply and soil, as well as the food grown in it (
Arsenic is a naturally occurring substance that can be harmful and cause cancer in large doses. Due to natural erosion and the previous use of arsenic-containing pesticides, certain foods and water sources may contain unsafe levels of the element.
Wine contains arsenic. Although most wines contain low, harmless levels, some wines contain levels that exceed the EPA’s drinking water guidelines of no more than 10 ppb.
For example, one study tested 65 red wines from 4 U.S. states and found that all of them exceeded the EPA guidelines for drinking water — with an average arsenic level of 23 ppb (
Another study tested a wider sample of wines from California and found that 28 types that the media identified as containing high levels of arsenic had an average of 25.6 ppb, while 73 randomly selected grocery store wines contained an average of 7.4 ppb (6).
Interestingly, this study also identified a relationship between price and arsenic content — the least expensive wines contained the highest levels of the element (6).
Types and locations with the highest amounts
This table highlights the average arsenic levels of various types of California-made wines, according to one study of 101 wine samples (6):
|Type of wine||Average arsenic concentration|
As you can see, rosé wines contained the highest levels, followed by white wines and then red wines. According to the EPA’s drinking water standards, only red wines contained safe levels, on average (6).
That said, studies of wine produced in Spain found that white wines were highest in arsenic, while studies of wines produced in Italy found that red wines contained the highest levels (
This shows that the arsenic content of different types of wine varies and may be influenced by the wine’s area of origin (
This was similarly demonstrated by a study of 65 wine samples across 4 U.S. states (
|State of origin||Average arsenic concentration|
|New York||18.3 ppb|
Ultimately, the varying levels identified between the type and origin of wines suggest that more widespread testing is needed.
Wine’s arsenic levels depend on its type and origin. One study noted the highest levels in wines from Washington, while those with the lowest levels were from New York. Among California-made wines, red types had the lowest levels.
Wine alone is extremely unlikely to cause arsenic poisoning unless you drink 1–2 glasses of the same high arsenic wine daily for long periods, or if you often drink these wines alongside other lifestyle practices that expose you to high amounts of the element (
What’s more, the EPA’s standards for drinking water may not be relevant when it comes to wine. You drink much more water over your lifetime than wine, making it more important that the arsenic content of water is tightly regulated.
Choose the safest wine
Here are some guidelines for purchasing the safest wine:
- Price. Don’t choose the cheapest wines available, as these may have the highest arsenic levels (6).
- State of origin. Two studies found that wine from Oregon and New York, along with red wine from California, contained less arsenic than wine from Washington. However, these samples were relatively small, and more research is needed (
While you may think that organic wine would be a safer option, this isn’t necessarily the case. That’s because naturally occurring arsenic can leach into the soil and groundwater from rock erosion (
Additionally, the soil of an organic vineyard may still contain traces of arsenic-based pesticides if they were once used in the same location, and this can affect the organic wine produced there today (
Other risk factors
You should consider the total arsenic load of your diet. Occasional or even regular wine consumption may only pose a risk to your health if you’re also regularly eating high arsenic foods, such as (
- apple cider and apple juice
- chicken and beef broth
- cereal bars
- seafood, including amberjack fish, octopus, salmon, and tuna
Tobacco products are also high in arsenic. Thus, smoking or using other tobacco products may increase your exposure to the element beyond safe levels (
To minimize arsenic exposure, opt for mid- or higher-priced wines from Oregon, New York, or California. Additionally, reduce your intake of high arsenic foods and use of tobacco products.
If you suspect you or someone you’re caring for is experiencing arsenic poisoning, here are some of the short-term signs and symptoms to look out for (
- diarrhea, which may be bloody
- low blood pressure
- cough or chest pain
Long-term exposure to the element may also cause your skin to become darker, a persistent sore throat, confusion, loss of muscle control, and/or persistent digestive problems. It may also increase your risk of leukemia and lung and skin cancer (
Arsenic poisoning can affect your skin, digestion, muscles, and heart rhythm. Chronic exposure to the substance can darken your skin, cause a persistent sore throat, and/or lead to digestive issues.
If you think you’ve ingested too much arsenic, seek medical care immediately.
Your healthcare provider can order tests to assess your blood levels, as well as skin, hair, and nail tests that assess your long-term exposure (
Receiving large quantities of arsenic-free water intravenously may help flush excess arsenic from your system in the case of short-term poisoning — although you may also need electrolyte supplements (
Complications caused by arsenic poisoning or long-term exposure may require more in-depth medical treatment.
Seek medical care if you’re concerned about poisoning. Drinking water may help flush excess arsenic from your system.
Arsenic is a naturally occurring element that’s found in small amounts in almost all foods. Unfortunately, pesticide use and rock erosion have introduced larger amounts of the element into the food and water supply.
While the arsenic levels of some wines exceed the EPA’s drinking water standards, most wines appear to be safe. Additionally, it’s worth keeping in mind that drinking water standards are strict, as you drink significantly more water than wine over your lifetime.
As such, even if you’re a regular wine drinker, you’re likely not at risk of poisoning unless you’re also regularly exposed to high levels of the element through high arsenic foods or tobacco products.
If you suspect that you have arsenic poisoning, seek medical attention immediately.