Arsenic on Tap

New batch: Apricot Wheat, Socorro Springs Brewery

Ask anyone who’s attempted to home brew (successfully or not) and you will likely hear that making the perfect beer is part art and part science. Just the right mix of hops and malt, proper timing, a suitable temperature, and adequate amounts of tasting, of course. Even the experts differ on what they consider the most important variable. Many will claim that it’s all about the water.

So it was no surprise when, a few weeks ago, when that was the answer given by the brew master at Socorro Springs Brewery. I just happened to drop by when he was explaining that it’s difficult to recreate the taste of many of his creations elsewhere because the water is perfect here.

Let me mention that as I pedaled through Socorro and beyond, never have I passed a stream or an ephemeral pond and had a flashback to a refreshing Rocky Mountain stream. I doubt Pete Coors would be impressed with our turbid flows.

Sure, buddy. “Pretty weak”, I thought.

“It’s the arsenic”, he continued. Okay. Now you have my attention.

In the early nineties the EPA amended the Safe Drinking Water Act to decrease the concentration of arsenic in drinking water from 50 ppb to 10 ppb (which is the same standard set by the WHO). Under the old standards, most, if not all, of the springs and wells in Socorro County would be in compliance. Much to the dismay of the ‘below-average income’ residents here, almost all of their sources were soon deemed ‘contaminated’. Millions would have to be spent to remedy the situation, and those struggling just to pay rent worried they would find themselves paying double or triple their previous water bills.

Socorro did not meet the deadline for compliance, and as of last year, the city was still testing their options. A concise breakdown of remediation choices that were being considered can be found at http://www.socorronews.com/content/socorro-starts-arsenic-treatment-trial.

Unlike most of the groundwater contaminants that are cause for concern, arsenic’s primary sources are natural. Arsenic-rich minerals such as arsenopyrite and orpiment are common in the Southwest. Volcanic material with high silica content is also to blame. Finally, hydrothermal processes and long recharge times, especially in the Jemez Mountain region, lead to a more complete breakdown of arsenic-rich minerals resulting in increasing concentrations at distant springs.

So how much is too much arsenic? Is there really a health risk associated with consuming water two or four times the EPA limit, given there were no real long-term observations of the US populations’ reaction to the 50 ppb limit that existed for decades? More importantly, does my liver go into overdrive trying to remove the additional toxin from my IPA?

Opinions vary.

In Bangladesh thousands have died each year from arsenic poisoning since wells were installed throughout the country to provide an alternative to the bacteria-laden surface water that served as the primary source of drinking water. A failure to test the wells for arsenic resulted in mass poisonings. Many of the wells still contain arsenic levels above 50 ppb.

Evidence supporting a link between cancer and increased arsenic intake is less conclusive. In Taiwan the magic level seems to be 150 ppb before cancer rates increase. In the US there has been some correlation between skin cancer and arsenic levels below the EPA limit. Many studies have shown increased mortality in people with other health conditions that have also been exposed to higher than normal arsenic levels. Perhaps the most disturbing effect of increased arsenic intake is the havoc it wreaks on the immune system.

Maybe moderate levels of arsenic are just more damaging to populations with poor nutrition (whether it be malnutrition or obesity).
The verdict is still out on long term effects of arsenic in the United States. I would love to hear from someone with more knowledge on the subject.

Until then, I am looking into a reverse-osmosis filtering system for my place. I drink a lot of water. And occasionally I like to enjoy a microbrew or two. Apparently I am in the right place for that. New Mexico now has almost 20 microbreweries. Maybe word has gotten out about the delicious role arsenic plays in the perfect brew. Hopefully there is a more reasonable explanation.

Either way, I think some Nut Brown Ale from Sante Fe Brewing Company would be perfect for the BBQ tonight…

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One Response to Arsenic on Tap

  1. This calls for more (microbrew) research…

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