Recycled Wastewater In The Wine Vineyard: Unknowns, Health Hazards, Brand Issues

NOTE TO READERS: In 2012 Stealth Syndromes Project co-founder Lewis Perdue wrote an article for Wine Industry Insight pointing out in some of the dangers lurking in the current practice, theory and science of using recycled wastewater for irrigation of crops and landscaping.

That first article: Toxic Irrigation: Major Study Indicts Chemicals Found in Recycled Wastewater Used For Vineyards And Other Crops, raised Perdue’s concerns and resulted in the founding of Stealth Syndromes Project (formerly called the Stealth Epidemic Project) and this web site.

 This second Wine Industry Insight article picks up where that first article left off.


The Great California Gold Water Rush

The current drought has accelerated has accelerated pressures to expand the use of recycled municipal wastewater for irrigation.

Some thirsty cities like San Diego, are even working on making “toilet to tap” a reality.

Water shortages are already driving up food prices, increasing farm labor unemployment, and decreasing farm income. Like higher gas prices and Obamacare taxes, higher food prices decrease discretionary consumer spending and that drags down the overall U.S. economy.

The rush for recycled municipal wastewater, however, is premature in most cases because immediate demands for water have outpaced both the current treatment technology and the science of risks.

And those present substantial dangers both for public health and for the reputations of wine and food brands.

The biggest black hole is a lack of data.

No one knows whether wine from vines irrigated with recycled wastewater contains hazardous chemicals from the water. No one? Wine Industry Insight contacted UC Davis and Cornell University. Surely someone there must have studied this. Or know of studies. Cornell responded. UC Davis did not.

Scientists at Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and their Geneva Experiment station told Wine Industry Insight that they are unaware of any published studies done on the uptake of CECs by grapevines irrigated by recycled wastewater. However, there are studies confirming that a number of food plants do take up CECs from recycled wastewater irrigation.

But nothing on grapevines. Which means that every winery selling wine from a vineyard irrigated with recycled wastewater has no solid facts to assure its customers that their wine is not contaminated.

Chemicals of Emerging Concern (CECs): Persistent, Mostly Unknown, Some Verified As Harmful

[NOTE: This article concerns municipal wastewater, not on-site winery wastewater which is not subject to the enormous chemical loads found in municipal systems.]

One major issue for recycled wastewater irrigation rests in the inability of all but the rarest and most expensive wastewater treatment methods to remove “Chemicals of Emerging Concern,” (CECs). Estimates of the number of these chemicals vary from 1,000 to more. Significantly, no one actually knows because no one has ever undertaken a complete census.

Those chemicals — which are are currently not regulated — include pharmaceuticals, illegal drugs, hormone disrupting compounds, personal care products, plasticizers and other unknown compounds. Added to these are “metabolites” — variations in compounds formed by human consumption and excretion.

Any complete chemical census would also include unknown and unpredictable chemicals that are transformed by the treatment process or new chemicals that form from reactions among those initially present in the wastewater.

The following links may be useful in helping to understand the complicated issues raised in this article:

This ad-free article is made possible by the financial support of the
Center for Research on Environmental Chemicals in Humans: a 501(c)(3) non-profit.
Please consider making a tax-deductible donation for continued biomedical research.

Latest Research Confirms Negative Health Effects From Many CECs

The science has advanced since Wine Industry Insight‘s first article on this issue. Thousands of scientific studies in the past four years have demonstrated that delicate intra-cellular and molecular signaling mechanisms account for damage done by low levels of many chemicals commonly found in treated wastewater.

Research shows that those chemicals can cause the exact same changes in a cell as those found in cancer, Alzheimer’s Disease, obesity, diabetes, infertility and other serious diseases and syndromes.

The following links are just two of hundreds like them:

$481 Million Plant Cleans Up Wastewater For Groundwater Recharge

To build a system that may (or may not) remove CECs from wastewater, Orange County, California, has spent more than $481 million on what is the most advanced treatment facility in the state.

Their system treats wastewater (of the quality now used for irrigation elsewhere) and processes it through three further stages: a microfiber filter that strains out most bacteria, then reverse osmosis that is supposed remove most everything but water molecules. This is finished off with final doses of hydrogen peroxide and ultraviolet light.

The system produces 70 million gallons of water per day. This is water that used to flow — in a far more contaminated state — into the Pacific Ocean. But that previous treated outflow of water is of the same quality as that used for irrigation on farmland, vineyards and in those purple pipes that water landscaping.

However, even after almost half a billion dollars, the system may not remove CECs.The water district is moot on that.

The water district does say the water meets all state and federal standards. But Chemicals of Emerging Concern, including hormone disruptors, are not regulated in drinking water by any governmental body, not required to be monitored and are therefore omitted from the standards and from consideration.

Technically, the water is clean enough to drink. But Orange County dumps it back into the ground to replenish groundwater.

Nothing approaching this level of care is used with treated municipal wastewater used for irrigation. That includes the landscape water in those purple pipes.

Far Reaching Human And Environmental Consequences

  • Direct human environmental exposure to landscape irrigation, run-off and sprinkler aerosolization.
  • Occupational exposure to agricultural workers.
  • Human Exposure through food and drink.
  • Accelerated growth of Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria.
  • Environmental contamination of cropland.
  • Groundwater contamination.
  • Environmental impacts on fish and other aquatic life including contentiously endangered species like the California Delta Smelt.

Food Plants Absorb CECs From Wastewater Irrigation

Multiple research studies confirm that food plants absorb these chemicals from treated wastewater and from biosolids. Biosolids are treated sewage sludge used as fertilizer, a common ag practice for fruits, vegetables, pastureland and also for vineyards.

Astonishingly, little or no research has been done on the uptake of Chemicals of Emerging Concern (CEC) by grapevines irrigated with treated wastewater or fertilized by biosolids. However, a reasonable body of published papers indicates that food plants do take up CECs (A, 16-24).

Because of the expense of experiments, each of the studies usually focuses on a handful (3 to 5) of compounds with pharmaceuticals being the most common. This may not be a coincidence because pharmaceutical companies appear to be the top source of funding for these studies.

A Sample Of Some CEC’s Tested For Uptake

Some of the compounds found in recycled irrigation water and tested in these studies included:

  • Amoxicillin
  • Nalidixic acid
  • Cephalexin
  • Nonylphenol
  • Bisphenol A
  • 17α-Ethynyl estradiol
  • 17β-Estradiol
  • Cefadroxyl
  • 7-aminocephalosporanic
  • Salicylic acid
  • Ibuprofen
  • Enrofloxacin
  • Levodopa
  • Trimethoprim
  • Promethazine hydrochloride

These links may also answer some questions you may have.

Studies Generally Focus On Row Crops

In general, the studies focus on row crops such as soybeans, cabbage, radishes, and bell peppers. The concentrations of CECs in inedible parts of the plants is generally in the nano-mole range.

The compound molecules tested tend to be relatively large as indicated by mass — up to 300 g/mol — compared with water: 18 g/mole.

In fact, the discussion of chemical uptake in these studies tends not to focus on molecule size. Further, estimates of uptake varies widely depending upon the plant tested and the nature of the chemical. Attempts to predict chemical uptake based on neutrality/ionization, whether it is hydrophobic or hydrophilic and other parameters, have produced inconsistent results.

The inconsistent results may be partly due to a wide range of experiment designs. Some of them seem haphazard, which makes the ultimate levels of uptake unreliable. All that can be concluded from most is that chemicals of a relatively large mass are taken up by plants.

BioActivity At Low Level Concentrations

Traditional toxicology risk estimates consider nano-level concentrations to be a negligible exposure.

A fatal flaw in this traditional toxicological reasoning is that it considers the risk in a vacuum as contrasted with reality, where chemical exposures aren’t constant. In addition, some compounds can accumulate in fat tissue.

Unfortunately, many studies done by traditional toxicologists ignore recent science and appropriate outcomes. The results are flawed studies like this one: Low-Dose BPA Paper In Toxicological Sciences Is Contaminated By Massive Errors & Should Be Retracted

Traditional toxicology measures outcomes that focus on visible injury or death, on examinations of gross morphology that can be seen under an optical microscope or measured with a ruler and scale. More recent studies show that hormone disruptors are most active in nano- to pico-mole concentrations. (For a consumer-level explanation of this, Please see: Improbably Small, Exquisitely Complicated, Incredibly Fragile = Easy To Disrupt)

This low-level potency is due to their effects on molecular signaling pathways within the cell that cause damage which can manifest itself as cancer and other diseases. Hormone disruptors can also have epigenetic consequences.

Epigenetic mechanisms alter gene expression in much the same way a mutation would. Epigenetics do not alter the underlying DNA sequence. However, this can result in a gene producing too much of its designated compound, too little, or none.

Some hormone disruptors like the fungicide vinclozolin — frequently used on grapes — can cause epigenetic alterations that can be inherited.

Plant Research: Vines Most Likely Absorb Chemicals From Wastewater Irrigation

Based on existing plant research, it can be reasonably assumed that grapevines irrigated with recycled municipal water do take in CECs. The only question seems to be which ones and in what quantities.

Wine: Safe? Unsafe? Without Data, No Way To Know

The wine industry is playing in unknown territory.

In the absence of data on uptake of CECs from recycled wastewater and biosolids, it cannot unequivocally assure consumes that its products are safe. It needs solid research on the issues, including research which goes beyond traditional toxicology investigations.

Reference Sources

Laura J. Carter, Eleanor Harris, Mike Williams, Jim J. Ryan, Rai S. Kookana, and Alistair B. A. Boxall, Fate and Uptake of Pharmaceuticals in Soil−Plant Systems, J. Agric. Food Chem

Eric E. Nilsson, Michael K. Skinner, Environmentally induced epigenetic transgenerational inheritance of disease susceptibility, Translational Research, 28 February 2014,

Soubry, A., Hoyo, C., Jirtle, R. L. and Murphy, S. K. (2014), A paternal environmental legacy: Evidence for epigenetic inheritance through the male germ line. Bioessays, 36: 359–371. doi: 10.1002/bies.201300113

Boxall, A.; Johnson, P.; Smith, E.; Sinclair, C.; Stutt, E.; Levy, L. Uptake of veterinary medicines from soils into plants. J. Agric. FoodChem. 2006, 54, 2288−2297.

Wu, C.; Batt, A.; Witter, J.; Fang, M.; Czajkowski, K. Uptake ofpharmaceutical and personal care products by soybean plants from
soils applied with biosolids and irrigated with contaminated water.Environ. Sci. Technol. 2010, 44, 6157−6161.

Dolliver, H.; Kumar, K.; Gupta, S. Sulfamethazine uptake by plants from manure-amended soil. J. Environ. Qual. 2007, 36, 1224−

Shenker, M.; Harush, D.; Ben-Ari, J.; Chefetz, B. Uptake of carbamazepine by cucumber plants – A case study related to irrigation
with reclaimed wastewater. Chemosphere 2011, 82, 905−910.

Holling, C.; Bailey, J.; Heuvel, B.; Kinney, C. Uptake of human pharmaceuticals and personal care products by cabbage (Brassica
campestris) from fortified and biosolids-amended soils. J. Environ. Monit. 2012, 14, 3029−3036.

Wu, C.; Spongberg, A.; Witter, J.; Sridhar, B. Transfer of wastewater associated pharmaceuticals and personal care products to
crop plants from biosolids treated soil. Ecotoxicol. Environ. Saf. 2012, 85, 104−109.

Kong, W.; Liang, Y.; Zhang, J.; Smith, F.; Yang, A. Uptake of oxytetracycline and its phytotoxicity to alfalfa (Medicago sativa L.).
Environ. Pollut. 2007, 147, 187−193.

Redshaw, C.; Wootton, V.; Rowland, S. Uptake of the pharmaceutical fluoxetine hydrochloride from growth medium by
Brassicaceae. Phytochemistry 2008, 69, 2510−2516.

Herklotz, P.; Gurung, P.; Heuvel, B.; Kinney, C. Uptake of human pharmaceuticals by plants grown under hydroponic conditions.
Chemosphere 2010, 78, 1416−1421.


  1. Toxic Irrigation: Major Study Indicts Chemicals Found in Recycled Wastewater Used For Vineyards And Other Crops | The Stealth Syndromes Project - May 24, 2015

    […] Please see the next article in this series, Recycled Wastewater In The Wine Vineyard: Unknowns, Health Hazards, Brand Issues […]