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Water, water everywhere, but....

Water, water everywhere, but . . .

Two new reports released within a week of each other have left some consumers feeling a bit parched. Connoisseurs of bourbons, sherries and fruit brandies were treated to the news that many of their favorite brands contain dangerously high levels of urethane, a potent carcinogen. Meanwhile, testimony before members of Congress revealed that many of the drinking fountains in the United States are spouting water that is contaminated with lead.

The report on tainted alcohol, released last week, lists urethane levels in more than 1,000 alcoholic beverages as determined by government and beverage industry laboratories. The data were compiled and released by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington, D.C.-based consumer group that obtained the test results through the federal Freedom of Information Act.

"Unlike some of the chemical controversies of the past, such as DDT and saccharine, there is no disputing the fact that urethane is a carcinogen,' says Michael Jacobson, the group's executive director. However, he says, while Canada established two years ago strict limits on urethane levels in alcoholic beverages, ranging up to 400 parts per billion (ppb), the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) "has neither set limits nor recalled products from the marketplace.'

Part of the problem, say beverage producers and federal regulators, is that urethane is a natural by-product of the fermentation process; none is intentionally added in the production process. Tiny amounts of it are present in such commonly consumed foods as bread and yogurt. According to Emil Corwin, a press officer with the FDA, the agency "has been meeting with key [beverage] industry groups in an effort to find production methods that will reduce urethane levels in alcoholic beverages. But we still need to figure out how it's produced and how to reduce it.'

The new report shows that most beers, with the notable exception of Foster's (Australia) and Golden Dragon (China), contain extremely low or undetectable levels of urethane. Fruit brandies have the highest levels--in some cases more than 2,000 ppb--with generally decreasing amounts appearing in bourbons, sherries and table wines, though many of them are still higher than Canadian standards. Backed by cancer specialist Marvin Schneiderman, a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a former associate director of the National Cancer Institute, Jacobson calculates that consumption of two drinks a day at levels just under the Canadian limit could lead to a cancer risk from 10 to 4,700 times greater than the FDA's "acceptable' cancer risk level of 1 in 1 million.

Lois Gold, a cancer risk specialist at the Lawrence Berkeley (Calif.) Laboratory, told SCIENCE NEWS that because the carcinogenicity of alcohol itself is still being disputed, the relative risk posed by urethane in alcohol is difficult to determine. It's possible, she says, that although urethane is much more carcinogenic than alcohol, even uncontaminated alcohol may prove to be the bigger problem since greater quantities of it are consumed.

Meanwhile, for those who might be inspired to stick with water, straight up, beware the friendly water fountain. A draft excerpt from a report being prepared for the U.S. Public Health Service states that "Virtually all electric drinking fountains in schools appear to have sizable elevations of lead in their water.' The report's coauthor, Paul Mushak of the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, told a congressional subcommittee that although he mentioned only school water fountains in the report, the problem may be more widespread since most electric coolers contain lead plumbing.

The report is expected to boost congressional efforts to force the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to lower its drinking-water lead standard to 20 ppb from 50 ppb (SN: 10/24/87, p.269). Even at very low concentrations, lead damages the nervous system. Unfortunately, says Henry A. Waxman, the subcommittee chairman, "EPA's regulatory efforts to deal with the issue have moved at a snail's pace, if they've moved at all.'
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Title Annotation:urethane found in alcoholic beverages; lead contamination in drinking fountain water
Author:Weiss, Rick
Publication:Science News
Date:Dec 19, 1987
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