(CBS SF) -- There may be a reason to think twice before you sip – a lawsuit filed in California Thursday contends some top-selling wines contain high levels of arsenic.
Kevin Hicks is the man behind BeverageGrades, a Denver lab that analyzes wine. Before launching the lab, Hicks spent 15 years in the wine business.
Because there are very few federal labeling requirements telling you what's in the wine you drink, Hicks decided to test some brands himself. His results are shocking.
He tested more than 1,300 bottles of wine and found almost a quarter contained levels of arsenic higher than the Environmental Protection Agency's maximum limit for drinking water of 10 parts per billion. In some cases he says the wines contained up to four and five times that amount.
So far there is no theory on why this might be happening but Hicks' tests showed an interesting pattern. "The lower the price of wine on a per-liter basis, the higher the amount of arsenic," he said.
Hicks' list of low-priced, high-arsenic wines includes Trader Joe's famous Two-Buck Chuck White Zinfandel which tested at three times the limit. A bottle of Menage a Trois Moscato was four times the limit and a Franzia Blush had five time the EPA limit for drinking water.
Not surprisingly, Hicks said the wine companies he approached were not happy with him or the tests. Then he took the results to a law firm. Attorney Brian Kabateck says they took Hicks' original test results to two separate labs and they "absolutely" stand up. And that's what they argue in the class action lawsuit. They're accusing more than 24 California winemakers and sellers of misrepresenting their wines as safe.
So how bad is it? CBS News took the results to epidemiologist Allan Smith, associate director of the Arsenic Health Effects research program at UC Berkeley. Smith said the alleged 50 parts per billion arsenic wines, the highest level found in Hicks' test, could be deadly over time.
Even though "parts per billion" seems like a very tiny amount, Smith said, "Arsenic is highly toxic, it's astonishing. It has as many effects inside the body as cigarette smoking."
Keep in mind the tests were based on limits set for drinking water, that's the only beverage with an arsenic limit set by the United States government. Based on those numbers though, Smith says, "We estimate that approximately 1 in 100 people who drink water like that throughout their life will die from the arsenic, ultimately, due to mostly cancers from it."
In response, the Wine Group, one of the companies named in the suit told CBS News, "It would not be accurate or responsible to use the water standard as the baseline" because people drink more water than wine. And, the company points out the highest level of arsenic cited in the lawsuit is "only half of Canada's standard for wine, of 100 parts per billion."
Two other companies named in the suit responded to CBS News' request for comment. Treasury Wine estates said its "brands are fully compliant with all relevant federal and state guidelines," and Trader Joes, which sells Two-Buck Chuck said, "the concerns raised in your inquiry are serious and are being treated as such. We are investigating the matter with several of our wine producing suppliers."
Smith says the wine makers ultimately need to determine where the arsenic might be coming from, but in the meantime, "it ought to have on the wine, 'this wine contains arsenic.'"
But the attorney behind the suit says they want accountability. Brian Kabateck, says his ultimate goal is "to get the winemakers to recall these wines, to get them to refund the money that people paid for these wines, and ultimately to clean up the wine industry in California."
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