A congressman yesterday asked the National Institute of Environmental Health Studies to determine whether some French and other imported wines found to contain asbestos fibers can cause cancer.
The congressman, Rep. David B. Obey (D-Wis.), also sent a letter to Treasury Secretary W. Michael Blumenthal, urging that foreign producers be required to disclose on their labels whether their wines contain asbestos. The Treasury has jurisdiction over wine imports.
Asbestos is known to cause lung and other forms of cancer when inhaled, but scientists do not know whether it also causes cancer when ingested.
The asbestos fibers make their way into wine in the process of filtration. Filters made of asbestos are in common use in Europe. They used to be in common use in this country, too, but according to A. Dinsmoor Webb, chairman of the Department of Viticulture and Enology - grape growing and wine making - at the University of California at Davis, almost all U.S. wine makers have shifted to plastic or other sinthetic filtering materials.
Webb said U.S. producers began moving to synthetics in large numbers a year or two ago as the harmful effects of inhaling asbestos were publicized. He said this was a painless thing to do, and a way of avoiding any risk to either public health or sales.
But Webb acknowledged that some U.S. wine makers may still be using asbestos filters. An official at the French embassy said last night he understood asbestos filters also are sometimes used in the United States in the production of beer, cider and soft drinks. Asbestos fibers have been found in drinking water supplies in some parts of this country.
Only a fraction of the wine consumed in this country is of foreign origin. In 1975, for example, 87 per cent was produced in the United States and 13 per cent abroad. Of that foreign wine, about 30 per cent came from Italy, 18 per cent from France, 17 per cent from Portugal, 16 per cent from Germany, 14 per cent from Spain and the rest from other countries.
David P. Rall, director of NIEHS, told Obey at a hearing yesterday that asbestos fibers had been found in varying quantities in about half the samples of French wine tested in one recent study in Paris. He said he knew of another study by Canadian researchers that had found such fibers in wines from other European countries.
Rall said the concentrations were similar to those that have been found in drinking water supplies in some parts of this country.
Experts said yesterday that asbestos fibers are less likely to be found in finer, more expensive wines than in the less expensive grades. That is because finer wines often are left to age and impurities settle out as sediment, they said.
Obey asked Rall to undertake the asbestos ingestion study. The congress sits on the Appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction over NIEHS.
Rall said there have been no conclusive studies of the ingestion question, but that in one recent German study cancer had been produced in rats fed relatively large amounts of asbestos. He said the asbestos was in the form of pulverized wine filters.