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The Lead Question : Health: The government is trying to determine acceptable levels of lead after finding the metal in 600 wine samples.

TIMES WINE WRITER

Two weeks ago, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms released a list of more than 600 wines it had tested for lead content. All contained varying amounts of lead, from trace amounts in some wines up to nearly 2,000 parts per billion in others. Lead is toxic to infants and young children, and in large doses it can cause physical problems in all people.

A spokesman for BATF said the bureau released the lead data only after it received Freedom of Information petitions from consumer groups and that the agency “makes no claims as to the positive or negative attributes associated with the . . . numbers.”

The Environmental Protection Agency has set as a target 15 ppb of lead in water; the figures assume consumption of a half gallon of water per day during a 70-year life span. No one interviewed was prepared to say how that relates to wine. Terry L. Cates, chief of compliance for BATF, says the Food and Drug Administration is working to set lead levels in wine, but added, “It’s complicated because the target audience for wine consumption is entirely different from the target audience for water.”

Cates added: “The general issue of lead in wine is so complicated that we can’t make a rapid decision. We know that lead may be bad for us, (but) I drink wine, and this is not going to alter my consumption patterns at all.”

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Last week, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington-based consumer protection group, issued a statement calling for the government to set a standard of 200 parts of lead per billion in wine. Spokesman Elliott Dritch said: “The Canadians have a 200 parts per billion limit for wine, and the 11 countries of the EEC (European Economic Community) have signed a resolution that it will prohibit any wine to be sold that has more than 300 parts per billion (of lead).”

Curt Coker, with the food and cosmetics safety section of the FDA, said the FDA asked BATF to test wine for lead in 1989. He said lead findings were expected since some people do not remove the lead capsule after opening a bottle of wine, or clean away traces of the capsule, and consequently the wine comes into contact with lead when it is poured.

“But one surprising thing was the levels we found inside the bottle,” he said. Where this lead comes from is not precisely known. Lead is in the environment--in air, soil and water--and is contained in all food products, said Gordon Burns, president of ETS Laboratories of St. Helena, a BATF-certified analytical laboratory that specializes in alcoholic beverages.

Asked where some of the elevated levels of lead found by BATF’s test came from, he replied: “It’s my opinion that essentially all elevated lead levels in wine will be found to be related to deterioration of the closure.”

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Until recently, most California wineries used a lead foil capsule to cover the top of the bottle. However, wineries have been phasing them out for the last year. “In over 600 samples that we have tested for lead,” said Burns, “I have yet to see a wine, foreign or domestic, with a sound closure, that exceeded 50 parts per billion, which is the current water limit.”

Most of the California wines and many from Europe that were tested by BATF showed levels of lead between a trace and 25 to 50 parts per billion. Some wines from Chile and Italy showed much higher levels.

Cates said higher lead levels also may be found in wine from wineries that don’t use modern equipment. And Coker of FDA said, “It appears that more modern wine-making facilities have fewer problems” with lead in wine. (One theory is that if old wineries mend old transfer lines with solder, lead may leach into wine.)

Coker also noted that until very recently it was impossible to test for lead in wine because equipment powerful enough to detect the lead hadn’t been developed. “Now the technology of analytical equipment has advanced so we can measure down to 5 parts per billion and even lower levels.”

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He said FDA was concerned about lead in all foods, not just wine, and was working to set safety levels in a multitude of products.

Burns of ETS said: “Lead is ubiquitous in the environment, and to presume that the levels of lead in wine are greater than it is in all foodstuffs is simply wrong . . . You’d be hard pressed to find any foodstuff that has no lead.”

Finding a danger level for lead is complicated, said Dr. Bruce Ames, professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of California at Berkeley and director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences Center in Berkeley. “Lead is quite toxic, and there is a big argument going on about what levels we should be concerned about,” said Ames. “But these low levels (found in wine) don’t seem to be a problem. Lead is more dangerous to children, but children don’t drink wine.

“Of course, the (wine) industry should be concerned about how it got in there, and it doesn’t hurt to monitor it, but at these levels it’s not something that’s going to create a major health hazard tomorrow. In terms of its danger, it’s somewhere between extremely minor and nonexistent.”

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