Phthalate Contamination of Wines: An Observational Assessment and Potential Cause for Concern

“59% of wines are contaminated with phthalates! Hide your women and children!”

First of all, some of you may have seen some of the titles from articles reading “59% of wines contaminated with phthalates!” and other similar dramatic prose.  While I think the results of this study are certainly worthy of a more detailed and controlled study, let’s not jump to conclusions based on the results of one uncontrolled study.

The authors themselves acknowledged that “it was not possible to conduct a statistically representative study that would produce accurate conclusions”, though they did examine 100 different wine samples and felt as though their sample provided good pilot data for further research into phthalate levels in wine.

A brief background

For a more extensive background on endocrine disruptors in the environment, I shamelessly plug and urge you to visit the website for my new collaboration project with Lewis Perdue:  Stealth Epidemic.

Endocrine disruptors (EDCs) are present nearly everywhere in the environment as a result of human industrial development.  EDCs act in similar manners and interact with the same receptors of which androgens, estrogens, and other hormones also interact and function.   This is highly problematic, as nearly every bodily function you have is regulated by hormones and the endocrine system.

EDCs can be found in many different products, including the plastic in water bottles, the thermal paper for printers, and countless other products made from plastic and epoxy resins.  Bisphenol-A is probably the most extensively studied of the EDCs prevent in the environment, though there are hundreds more of these hormone-disrupting compounds present in the environment that could also be problematic for public health.

Phthalates are a specific group of endocrine disruptors that are used in plastics to maintain flexibility.  They can be found in many products, including children’s toys, clothes, cosmetics, and also certain pharmaceuticals.  Several studies have found that exposure to phthalates is correlated with an

Photo By Jynto [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo By Jynto [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

earlier onset of puberty, male and female infertility, deformities in the male reproductive system, detrimental changes to sperm motility and mobility, certain types of cancers, with possibly many more health problems as well.

Since phthalates are present in countless plastic products, is it possible that these potentially harmful EDCs are present in the wine we drink?  Though most wines are stored in glass bottles, could the wines have absorbed some of these chemicals during the production process (think hoses, tubes, etc)?

A new study in the journal Food Additives & Contaminants presents some preliminary observational data regarding phthalate content of French wine and spirits, illustrating some potentially concerning results and need for further controlled studies.

OK, so now that we understand that this study is preliminary, let’s take a look at what this observational study actually found:

  • Three types of phthalates were found in measureable quantities in the wine samples: dibutyl phthalate (DBP), diethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP), and butyl benzyl phthalate (BBP).

o   Concentrations varied significantly between samples, indicating that there were many different sources of contamination.

o   15% of wine samples contained measurable quantities of DEHP and BBP.

o   59% of wine samples contained measurable quantities of DBP.

o   17% of wine samples did not contain detectable quantities of phthalates (out of 13 studied anyway).

o   19% of wine samples had non-quantifiable trace amounts of phthalates.

  • Di-isobutyl phthalate (DiBP) was found in trace amounts in 4% of the wine samples.
  • For spirits (higher alcohol content):

o   DBP and DEHP were found in 90% of spirit samples.

o   BBP was found in 40% of spirit samples.

o   DiBP was found in 25% of spirit samples.

  • Only the oldest spirits (at least 20 years old) actually had measurable amounts, the remainder only had trace quantities.

o   100% of spirit samples contained at least one phthalate of the 13 studied.

  • 11% of wines were found to be non-compliant with European Union rules and regulations for maximum phthalate level requirements.
  • 19% of spirits were found to be non-compliant with European Union rules and regulations for maximum phthalate level requirements.

o   Another 7% were found to be very close to being almost non-compliant.

  • Note:  phthalates can more easily diffuse into a solution when ethanol levels are increased, so naturally, phthalate contamination of spirits should be (and was found to be) higher than phthalate contamination of wine.

Where could this phthalate contamination be coming from?

Since phthalates are found in plastics and other epoxy-based materials, the wines and spirits could have been contaminated at some point during the production process.  Any number of gaskets, vats, hoses, plastic holding tanks, or any other epoxy-resin-based piece of equipment could have been a possible source for phthalate contamination.

What about synthetic corks?  Many synthetic corks are plastic-based, so could they be contributing to the contamination?  According to this study, they actually examined several corks and tested them for phthalates and could only find measurable quantities in one specific type of synthetic cork.  They stated

Photo By Basilicofresco (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo By Basilicofresco (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

that “small quantities of DiBP was noted in certain synthetic corks, whereas it should not be present at all in a material intended for contact with beverages”.  Uh, which cork is it? They didn’t say….hopefully someone will put out some more data regarding this offending synthetic cork, so we can make a better judgment and determine if we need to stop using it.

One possible source of phthalate contamination that was not actually addressed in this study was the bag-in-box or other similar containers.  Do the plastics used in these bag-in-box wines leach phthalates or other endocrine disrupting compounds into the wine over time?  Is the contamination attained during the production process greater than the possible contamination by the bag-in-box packaging?

How do we avoid getting phthalates in the wine to begin with?

Well, it may not be considered cost effective at the moment (though honestly, when it comes to potentially messing with public health issues I say it is cost effective), using during the production process, only those products that are specifically designed to not contain phthalates, bisphenol-A, and many other EDCs that are known to be harmful to human health, should be utilized.   Also, whenever possible, choose glass instead of plastic.

However, since this is just an observational study and we really can’t point fingers at any particular product or production process, I can’t really make any solid recommendations or conclusions other than these generalities.  We definitely need to see more controlled studies and statistically valid experiments to get at the bottom of this contamination.

Concluding Thoughts…

It is very important to remember: “toxicity” by endocrine disruptors is not actually the problem, in the traditional sense of the word.  According to a recent analysis by Rebecca Yeamans and Lewis Perdue (2014) focusing on the short-comings of a paper published by the FDA on Bisphenol-A:

One problem that had plagued early BPA and EDC research was examining these compounds in terms of their toxicity, while advancements in this type of research has demonstrated that the timing of the exposure is markedly more critical than simple toxicity alone.”

When it comes to hormones and hormonally-driven processes, sometimes all that it takes is a trace amount of the compound to trigger a series of events with a sometimes less-than-desirable long term outcome.

If it is true that there are many wines and spirits out there that are contaminated with phthalates and possibly other endocrine disrupting compounds, we should be very concerned, even if these levels are

Photo By Emma Wallace (Flickr: Bottling for Vella Frontera) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo By Emma Wallace (Flickr: Bottling for Vella Frontera) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

found in “trace” amounts.

We really need a study examining all of the plastic or epoxy-resin-based products used in winemaking and spirit production, so we can narrow down the possible “culprits” for contamination.  If we know what product or products are leaching these harmful chemicals, then we can start to come up with safer alternatives.

Before we go dumping all of our wine and booze down the sink, let’s get to the source…..but quickly, please.

This is a highly debated topic and I would love to hear what you all think.  Let’s all have a discussion!  Comment here in this post.

Original Paper Source: Chatonnet, P., Boutou, S., and Plana, A. 2014. Contamination of wines and spirits by phthalates: types of contamination present, contamination sources, and means of prevention. Food Additives and Contaminants: Part A.  DOI: 10.1080/19440049.2014.941947.

6 comments for “Phthalate Contamination of Wines: An Observational Assessment and Potential Cause for Concern

  1. August 11, 2014 at 10:33 am

    It’s important to keep in mind that regulatory “limits” on the levels of nearly all toxic materials are based on worst-case scenarios, i.e. maximum potential for exposure (drinking water) in the most sensitive population (children).

    Let’s assume for a moment that EDs do present a marginal risk of negative health outcome in adults, say perhaps by promoting growth of certain classes of tumors. How much beer, wine or spirits would a person have to consume to reach a threshold activity level for EDs? How much impact would that level of *alcohol* consumption have on health?

    • Becca
      August 11, 2014 at 8:35 pm

      Those are legitimate questions, the answers to which I do not know (nor do I think anyone does).

      The problem with identifying EDs as a “toxin” in the traditional sense of the term as you described above, is that these chemicals do not actually work that way. What I mean is that many of these compounds are detrimental at minuscule levels, with no comparable “dose-dependent curve” like you see in “traditional” toxins. There is more to the story, but alas, there are literally thousands of articles on the topic that are too much for a comment here :)

      Another thing is this—as adults, most likely drinking/eating/being exposed to these EDs is not a problem. Where is becomes problematic is when we are most vulnerable–en utero, adolescence/puberty, pregnancy, and other major stages of development. So, while you and I drinking/eating/whatever EDs right now probably isn’t going to do a whole lot, you can be rest assured when I become pregnant I’m going to do all I can to avoid EDs as much as possible.

      The “programming” for a lot of these later-in-life diseases that have been linked to EDs actually happens when we are developing embryos! I’ve actually done some extensive research on this topic, and I find it so fascinating (in a terrifying way, of course hehe).

      Thank you so much for your insightful comments!

  2. August 12, 2014 at 7:38 pm

    Wow, very interesting. I’ve been avoiding plastics when possible, of late, but I had no idea that these toxins were such a problem in the wine world. Thanks for this overview- I’ll definitely be keeping an eye on this issue.

    Who knew our posts who correlate in an odd way this week? I hope that the Pink Label Hillinger Bubbly isn’t an offender!

    Did the study address whether organic or other “green” initiative wineries saw different numbers? I’d like to think these wineries that are taking the extra precautions would also be aware of this important issue.

    I shall certainly be steering clear of ALL synthetic corks for now! (More stelvins!)

    Cheers!

    Alison
    Bon Vivant DC

    • Becca
      August 12, 2014 at 8:04 pm

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Alison! Plastics are a lot more harmful than more people realize, for both people and the environment. Sure, taking a drink out of a plastic water bottle won’t kill you, it’s long term exposure effects that COULD have harmful effects in the long run.

      I would caution that this study was just preliminary, so I wouldn’t necessarily go changing your life to avoid synthetic corks just for this reason. I think only one of the corks studied actually showed any of the EDs, and that actually some of the winemaking equipment might be involved as well (like epoxy-lined hoses, tanks, etc). Though, I would definitely support your decision to do so just as a precaution until we know more!

      That being said, I, too, am trying to stay away from as many synthetic/plastic things as I can in all aspects of my life, so even though I would like to see more data, in principle I’d like to remain as “close to the earth” as I can. :)

      I don’t know about the Pink Label Hillinger Bubbly, but let’s just say it’s fine and enjoy that bad boy! :)

  3. WineKnurd
    August 13, 2014 at 10:27 pm

    Becca- just want to add a note from a chemists perspective. Wine is pretty acidic with a pH between 3 and 4. And while phthalates are soluble in organic solvents like ethanol, they are also soluble in water at low pH. Wine happens to also be 85% water at a low pH. Wine is essentially perfect for extracting phthalates from plastic. I have heard from “industry insiders” that the wine used in “bag in box” packaging has been manipulated to raise the pH or else it would extract undesirable sensory compounds (and likely toxic as well) from the flexible plastic bladders. I am sure that the corporate research behind such will never make it to a scientific journal, but as a chemist I am glass only baby!

    • Becca
      August 14, 2014 at 9:31 am

      KNURD!!!! Is that really you?? I thought you might have been trapped under something heavy. Or perhaps you were just busy making more little knurds? ;) Nice to “see” you here again!

      Thank you for your comments from the chemists’ perspective. You raise excellent points re: pH and the “perfect extractablity” of phthalates into wine.

      I hope that soon we’ll see some more independent research exposing all this hullabaloo, but you’re right, we’ll never see if from corporately-funded entities…

What do you think about this topic?