Asbestos in wine: how it gets there and how to avoid it

Asbestos in wine: how it gets there and how to avoid it

Asbestos can pop up in the oddest places – and while you may find this one hard to swallow, especially if it’s your favourite tipple, asbestos in wine, is one of those strange things!  

This mineral is far more commonly used in building and construction, so it’s relatively rare that you get wine contaminated with asbestos, or indeed asbestos in drinks or food at all. But the reality is that this deadly substance was used widely across the beverages industry for much of the last century, in filtered water, soft drinks and beer as well as wine.  

What Is Asbestos and What Is It Used For?  

Asbestos is actually a group of six naturally occurring fibrous silicate minerals, mainly comprising silicon and oxygen, and it’s found in soil and rocks around the world. Today, most nations have banned its production and exportation due to the associated health risks, although it’s still mined in Russia, Kazakhstan, China and Brazil.  

Before the risks were fully understood, asbestos was widely used across the construction industry for its heat resistance and strength, in flooring, roofing, insulation and the like; it would also be sprayed on walls and ceilings. Its use in the UK was banned in 2000.   

Yet the substance still kills thousands here every year, so it’s not just a problem of the past. Asbestos can be fine if it’s left untouched. But when its fibres are disturbed, it can lead to a range of serious illnesses, sometimes years or even decades later – including mesothelioma, asbestos-related lung cancer, asbestosis and pleural thickening.  

How Does Asbestos Make Its Way Into Wine?  

When it comes to wine contaminated with asbestos, the problem lies in the filtering process with asbestos used in wine filter pads and sheets. (Wine of the highest quality has to be filtered to  remove unwanted particles.)  

Until the late 1970s, all wine-producing nations favoured asbestos over the older, cellulose filters. So chrysotile asbestos fibres were regularly used across the beverages industry. Or amphibole asbestos filters would be used if greater resistance to acids was needed.  

Manufacturers used filtration systems with particular filters called pulp cakes, made from cotton and asbestos fibres due to their capacity to keep out microorganisms.   

This practice continues to this day in countries where using asbestos is still legal. (In fact, to date only 67 countries have banned the importation and use of asbestos, including Canada, Australia and all EU member states.) Among the major nations to still allow the import, export and use of asbestos are China, India, Russia and the US – where a 1989 ban on the substance was overturned just a couple of years later. The US stopped using filters with asbestos in drinks in the 1980s and today, it’s hard to say definitively whether asbestos is still being used in drinks Stateside.

And What Were The Dangers of Asbestos Wine Filtering?  

The wine filtering process could typically last up to four months. Cellar workers complete a couple of filtration cycles, in which they would open sacks of raw asbestos, shred the fibres and scatter them over the wine’s surface.  

Discarded bags would be left nearby on the floor, where they would be left lying around, further exposing staff members – who would not use or wear protective equipment during the filtering process.  

Since 1993, the Italian National Mesothelioma Register has recorded eight cases of the disease which included at least one work period spent as a winemaker.  

How To Avoid Asbestos In Wine 

Unfortunately, asbestos is still very much with us and indeed isn’t go away now that we are all more aware of the dangers.  

The key message is to know what you’re drinking at all times, and to be aware of the potential for wine containing asbestos if it comes from places where the use of it is still legal and your tipple could have been put through pulp-cake asbestos filters.   

Whether you’re experimenting with something different to drink at home, or are sampling the local produce while abroad, the reality is that there’s only one way to protect yourself from asbestos in wine – and that is to never touch a drink unless you know about its origins.  

If you’re really not sure, order something else. It’s the only 100% safe way of avoiding wine contaminated with asbestos.  

Can You Find Asbestos in Drinks Other Than Wine?  

In a word, yes; there’s a long history of asbestos in drinks other than wine. Indeed, asbestos fibres were consistently found in filtered drinks, most notably beer, in the 1970s. The same pulp cake filters would be used in brewing, while as well as asbestos in alcohol, the stuff has popped up in breweries in places from lagging to fireproofing, wall and ceiling plaster and gaskets and valves in piping.  

Brewery workers have previously brought successful industrial disease claims against breweries for both indirect and secondary exposure to asbestos, but the beer-drinking public was also at risk. There are even (anecdotal) reports of pub landlords adding asbestos to beer slops after closing time, to ‘cleanse’ the ale so that it could be served again to customers the next day.  

In a 2019 article in Nature journal, experts from Liverpool and Cambridge Universities said that asbestos in beer in the 1970s could be behind a fourfold spike in oesophageal adenocarcinoma during the last fifty years – with affected males outnumbering women four to one.  

The article says: “Asbestos ingestion, either from beer consumed before around 1980, or from occupational exposure, seems a plausible causative factor. If this is the case, its incidence should fall back to a low baseline by around 2050.”  

So while the threats of alcohol-containing asbestos are very small, it remains a historic (and very real) issue that it’s worth being aware of.