Week of 06/10/07

Dear EarthTalk: I’ve been noticing a lot of organic wines lately in the supermarket. Is this going to be a continuing trend?

—Peter Toot, via email

The recent upsurge of interest in organic foods has indeed not escaped the wine business and, yes, organic wines are more popular and more readily available than ever.

According to the Organic Trade Association, an industry group representing organic food producers and distributors, U.S. sales of wines made with organic grapes reached $80 million in 2005, a 28 percent increase over the previous year. Such sales represent little more than one percent of the total U.S. domestic wine market, but the association expects organic wine sales to grow about 17 percent a year through 2008, mirroring growth across all sectors of organic agriculture.

There are two types of organic labeling on wines. The vast majority of wines made with organically grown grapes do not qualify for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA"s) white-and-green "certified organic" label. This is because, like many conventional wines, they include added sulfite preservatives to prevent oxidation and bacterial spoilage.

While trace amounts of sulfites occur naturally in wines during the fermentation process, most producers add more, later in the winemaking process, to prolong shelf life. An estimated one percent of consumers, primarily those with asthma, report sensitivity to wines with larger amounts of sulfites. Symptoms can include a quickened pulse, lung irritation, skin redness and rashes. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned the use of sulfites on fruits and vegetables in 1986 after 13 consumer deaths were linked to them.

Current USDA rules allow wines containing fewer than 10 parts per million (ppm) of sulfites and made from organic grapes to carry the "certified organic" label. But organic wines may only advertise that they are "made from organic grapes" if they contain more than 10 ppm and up to 100 ppm of sulfites. Some organic grape growers consider it unfair that the addition of sulfites—which occur naturally and are not synthetic chemicals—should disqualify their wines from "certified organic" standing.

Moving beyond organic, a handful of vineyards have adopted so-called "biodynamic" (BD) grape growing methods, adding to organic methods the practice of cultivating, pruning and harvesting on a strict calendar in sync with lunar cycles. Many view such practices skeptically; nonetheless, proponents claim that BD wines taste better and remain drinkable longer. The website Wine Anorak ("anorak" is British slang for "geek" or "nerd") lists biodynamic wine labels from around the world.

Some leading organic (and low-sulfite) wines include varieties from Ceago, Frey, LaRocca, Bonterra and Organic Wine Works. Meanwhile, the California-based Organic Wine Company sources and distributes organic wines from around the world. Additionally, California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF), a trade group representing that state’s organic agriculture industry, provides a free online directory of California organic products and services, including the state’s many purveyors of organic and biodynamic wines.

CONTACTS: Wine Anorak; Ceago; Frey Vineyards; Bonterra; Organic Wine Company; CCOF Organic Directory

Dear EarthTalk: What is "Sick Building Syndrome?"

—Annie Sundberg, New York, NY

The term "sick building syndrome" was coined in the 1970s to describe a phenomenon whereby occupants of a building would become ill without explanation, and then symptoms would appear to decrease or go away altogether once they left the building.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), those afflicted usually experience symptoms such as headaches; eye, nose or throat irritation; dry cough; dry or itchy skin; dizziness and nausea; difficulty concentrating; fatigue; and extra sensitivity to odors. Usually sick building syndrome is associated with commercial buildings, but residential homes can also trigger symptoms. And, according to the U.S. Green Building Council, more than half of all U.S. schools have sick building syndrome.

Ironically, improvements in building design and energy efficiency may be major contributors to the problem, as airtight indoor space is not as well ventilated as areas cleansed by fresh air breezes. According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health indoor air pollution, biological contaminants such as bacteria and mold and inadequate ventilation have all contributed to a rise in SBS in recent years.

Adhesives, upholstery, carpeting, copiers, manufactured wood products, cleaning agents and pesticides are all sources of indoor air pollution, as are many of the chemical smells and other odors present in manufacturing and service settings. Also, according to the EPA, outdoor pollutants such as car exhaust can enter buildings through poorly located air intake vents and windows and become trapped indoors.

It’s no wonder that cases of sick building syndrome have been on the rise in recent years: People are spending more and more time indoors, and building materials, furniture and equipment contain many more synthetic chemicals than they did 50 years ago. Buildings operated or maintained in ways they were not originally designed for can create problems, as can occupant activities such as smoking or the use of colognes and perfumes.

Not everyone is convinced that on-the-job illnesses are associated with a building’s environmental factors. In a study conducted by Dr. Mai Stafford, M.D. of the University College London Medical School, symptoms were instead strongly linked to other factors such as job stress and lacking social support at work. Dr. Stafford and colleagues concluded, "
if sick building syndrome is reported in a building, management should consider causes beyond the physical design and operation of the workplace and should widen their investigation to include the organization of work roles and the autonomy of the workforce."

A combination of measures can help reduce sick building syndrome, including increasing ventilation and air distribution, removing known pollutants, replacing water-stained ceiling tiles and carpets, introducing air filtration—and educating management and maintenance personnel. Heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems, at a minimum, should meet local building code ventilation standards. And time should always be allowed for new building materials to off-gas chemical contaminants before occupancy.

CONTACTS: EPA Sick Building Syndrome