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A friend and I were discussing the fate of the "singing nun," popular for a time in the 60s when we were kids. We agreed she left the convent, entered into a lesbian affair and, in a state of despondency over money matters, committed suicide. But neither of us can remember exactly why. Could you possibly help? --Hethryn Haryse (?), Los Angeles

Let's not make this any more lurid than it already is, Hethryn (or whatever your name is--I swear, what this country really needs is a good dose of Palmer method). It's true that the "singing nun," also known as Janine (spellings vary) Deckers, committed suicide in Belgium in 1985 along with her companion of ten years, one Annie Pecher. However, Cecil does not know if the two were lovers, and frankly he does not feel it is any of his damn business. The two were in despair because the center for autistic children they had founded had gone under for lack of funds. The Belgian government was also dunning Deckers for back taxes of between $47,000 and $63,000, although she said she had given all her music earnings to her convent. Deckers, who had become a Dominican nun in 1959, recorded "Dominique" as a tribute to the founder of her order. In 1963 it made number one in the U.S., selling 1.5 million copies. Deckers left the convent in 1967 before taking final vows, partly to pursue a recording career, but never repeated her earlier success. After her death at 51 or 52 (the two women washed down massive doses of barbiturates with alcohol), she did receive the highest honor our society can bestow--a full page obit in People magazine.

What are sulfites, and why do all American wines seem to have them, and should I let this bother me? --James Ryo Kiyan, Chicago

It's not a question of letting anything bother you, Jamiesan. If sulfites want to bother you, they will, possibly by triggering your untimely demise. In fact, sulfites are the only additives now in use that are known to kill people. Fortunately, deaths are rare and result from what amounts to an extreme allergic reaction. If you've drunk your share of wine and so far nothing's happened, you're probably safe.

Sulfiting agents, which are used as preservatives in wine and other products, are mainly a problem for asthmatics, 5 to 10 percent of whom--perhaps 500,000 people in the U.S.--are sulfite-sensitive. Since 1982 at least six people have died from severe asthma attacks apparently caused by sulfite-treated foods. All six cases occurred in restaurants, where it's impossible to read ingredient labels and where the servers usually have no idea whether the food contains sulfites or not.

Sulfiting agents include sulfur dioxide (commonly used in wine), potassium metabisulfite, sodium sulfite, sodium bisulfite, and sodium metabisulfite. In wine they're used to prevent discoloration, bacterial growth, and fermentation. They're also used to prevent discoloration in shrimp, raisins and other dried fruit, potatoes, lettuce, and other vegetables. Restaurants like sulfites because they can keep an ancient salad looking fresh. Years ago crooked butchers used to use bisulfite, a sulfite derivative, to give spoiled meat a fresh red appearance, a practice that's now illegal.

The World Health Organization recommends a daily limit of 42 milligrams of sulfites for a 132-pound person. It's estimated that half the U.S. population is over the limit, and it's not hard to see why: a four-ounce glass of wine contains about 40 milligrams of sulfur dioxide, a green salad 160, and three ounces of dried apricots 175. At the urging of consumer groups, the Food and Drug Administration has banned the use of sulfites in most fresh fruits and vegetables and required labeling for sulfites used in packaged goods. Since January the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms has required labeling on all alcoholic beverages containing more than 10 parts per million of sulfites (wine typically contains 125-250 PPM). But it'll be a year or two before retailers get rid of all the unlabeled wine on their shelves. In the meantime, sulfite-sensitive folk are advised to stick to lemonade.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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