More than 600 domestic and imported wines tested by federal officials were found to contain lead, some at potentially dangerous levels for high risk individuals, according to a report released Wednesday by the U. S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
The report pointed to lead foil capsules--or the closures--that cover table wine corks as a chief cause of the toxic metal found by the researchers. "Significant lead contamination can result (in wine) from contact with the corrosion products of the lead capsule," the bureau stated in its report.
The findings prompted the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to announce Wednesday that it would soon propose a ban on all lead foil wine capsules.
Currently, the federal government has not defined what, if anything, constitutes a safe level of lead in food or beverages. However, the U.S. Environment Protection Agency permits only 15 parts per billion of lead in drinking water. The bureau's study said that the lead levels ranged from zero to 1,980 parts per billion in the wines tested.
An FDA spokesman said that the agency, in addition to seeking a ban on the lead foil capsules, will establish a tolerance for lead in both wine and food.
"Lead is a toxic substance and there is no known benefit to man from lead and no known level that is deemed safe," said FDA's Chris Lecos in Washington. "Because lead is so widespread in the environment--air, water, land--we try to minimize or eliminate human exposure to it as much as possible."
Lecos said that the lead levels found in wine do not pose a short-term hazard to consumers. However, the potential health threat is a concern for pregnant women and possibly women in their child-bearing years, he said. Lead is a known toxin to infants and young children. It can reduce IQ and, in high enough levels, cause mental retardation in the young.
"Hopefully government agencies will set some limits and ban the sale of wines that contain exceptionally high levels of lead," said Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington-based advocacy group.
The federal government launched the testing of wines in 1989 after Canadian health officials reported finding elevated levels of the heavy metal in alcoholic beverages.
BATF measured lead levels in the wine while in the bottle and then after the wine was decanted or poured. In most cases, the lead level increased after the wine was poured from the bottles. Officials theorize that if wine seeps through the cork and comes in contact with the lead foil then the metal will leach into the beverage. Also, when the wine is poured out of the bottle it may come in contact with corrosion caused by the lead foil on the bottle's rim or lip.
A California wine industry leader said that his trade group urged domestic vintners to replace lead foil capsules, often employed by fine American and European wines, in June, 1990. A target date of January, 1992, was set for the change from lead to aluminum, plastic or paper closures, said John De Luca, president of the San Francisco-based Wine Institute. Most California wineries will have made the change by then, he said.
Because lead is also found in foods such as apples, spinach, canned tuna and cooked french fries, De Luca said that the levels in wines must be put into perspective.
"This is a serious problem and it could be devastating," said Paul Gillette, publisher of the Wine Investor, a Los Angeles-based trade publication. "The whole situation has been marked by confusion . . . BATF is releasing all kinds of numbers and not explaining what these numbers mean. There is no guidance on whether these levels are dangerous or safe. And the wine industry hasn't helped itself because it did not come up with any guidance for consumers."
The release of the lead findings is particularly troubling to California's wine industry, the nation's largest, because the presence of the toxic metal may trigger some provisions of Proposition 65, the anti-toxics initiative.
In fact, a San Diego-based law firm has independently filed suit in San Diego County Superior Court against major vintners and supermarket chains alleging that the firms failed to adequately warn consumers about the presence of lead in wine.
Under Proposition 65 exposure to lead in excess of 0.5 parts per billion per liter per day would require a warning. Virtually all wines tested by BATF would exceed the Proposition 65 level.
The Wine Institute's De Luca said that the signs warning about alcohol's link to birth defects--posted at all retail outlets in California--fulfill the industry's obligations under Proposition 65.
The highest lead levels found by BATF were in imported wines. Some of the products, and the lead levels found after the wines were decanted were: Mateus white wine (Portugal) 278 p.p.b.; Bolla Valpolicella dry red wine 1985 (Italy) 179 p.p.b.; Carmel dry sauvignon blanc 1986 (Israel) 222 p.p.b.; B & G Partager vin rose (France) 734 p.p.b. and Santa Rita 120 Maipo Valley Cabernet sauvignon 1987 (Chile) 1,530 p.p.b. A high lead level was also found in the bottle of a popular import: Ruffino Chianti classico 1986 (Italy) 429 p.p.b.
Domestic wine's lead levels, after being decanted, were considerably lower with a few exceptions. Some of the lead levels included Beringer white zinfandel (Calif.) 81 p.p.b.; Charles Shaw Chardonnay 1986 (Calif.) 61 p.p.b.; Sakonnet Rhode Island red 1986 (R.I.) 99 p.p.b.; West Whitehill Aurore 1988 (W.Va.) 720 p.p.b.; and Wagner Vineyards 1986 Finger Lakes Seyval blanc (N.Y.) 223 p.p.b.