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Truly Hard to Swallow

By Karen MacNeil
November 1, 2019

Guest Blog

by Nina Rosas

Note from Karen: Our friend Nina Rosas, a lover of wine who has worked in the industry for over 20 years, spent hours researching this alarming piece on the historic use of asbestos in winemaking. Read on for her startling findings. 

It’s hard to believe (not to mention, hard to swallow), but asbestos was commonly used in the beverage industry from the early 1900’s until, at least, the late 1980’s to filter water, juice, soft drinks, beer, and WINE! (Emphasis on was). Asbestos, in the form of powder, fiber, sheets, or pads, is more effective than either cellulose or diatomaceous earth. This meant, with certain filtration systems, shredded asbestos fibers would simply be scattered on top of the wine! 

Asbestos is a group of thin, long, fibrous silicates known for their strength and for their resistance to heat and pH extremes. It was used in northern Europe more than 4000 years ago to add strength to earthenware pots and as early as the 6th century as fire-retardant cloth traded in the Middle East. 

Even though asbestos-related health issues may have been known as far back as Roman times, the use of asbestos began to grow significantly in the 1900’s for a wide variety of applications from beverage filtration to strengthening concrete. A bulletin published in 1902 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture describes the superiority of asbestos to cellulose filtration and how asbestos was used for hard cider production in France and Germany. 

Worldwide asbestos production tripled after World War II, and then more than tripled again to 4,700,000 tons by 1980. Canada and the Soviet Union were the largest producers, but there were asbestos mines all over—including on New York’s Staten Island. 

Now a known carcinogen, asbestos has been phased out and/or banned in most developed countries, including all of Europe and Australia. Unfortunately, the 1989 ban of asbestos in the United States was overturned in 1991. 

Is asbestos still being used in beverage applications in the United States? It is difficult to say for absolute certain, but the good news is that many of the major manufacturers of beer and wine filter pads, sheets, and/or filter medium do not appear to be using asbestos, opting for diatomaceous earth and cellulose combinations instead. 

In the end, I treasure fine wine, and I will not pass up the opportunity to drink older vintages from producers who may have used asbestos back in the day. But any potentially toxic additive or material that may be used in the production of wine—or in any beverage—is a topic I feel merits some attention and discussion. 

Drawing by Nina Rosas-Asbestos in Wine