Poison in My Tea?

Skull and crossbones on Camellia sinensis tea signTEA. Once relegated to the Poison Garden—then confirmed as providing multiple health benefits—and now with toxic contaminants?

Troubling, and more than a tad ironic.

However, this has been an ongoing problem, brought back to public attention whenever a new study comes out or another headline plays to your emotions (not unlike the headline of this particular post LOL).

For example, Jordyn Cormeir (2/19/19) flirts with fear-mongering with her “Is Your Favorite Tea Contaminated with Toxic Chemicals?” but then, having gained your attention, presents a measured and thoughtful review of possible contaminant sources. Accurately calling the results of an FDA study (which found 12 of 21 samples contaminated) “worrisome,” the FDA itself minimized that conclusion, saying

These findings are unlikely to be a safety concern for several reasons, including that the violative pesticides found are approved for use on tea internationally and the levels found on tea leaves is much higher than the trace levels found in brewed tea drink. (FDA 2014:28)

Makes me feel better already. You?

Contaminants: In the Tea Garden

tea plantTea plants absorb what they need from the soil, ground water, rain, and air. If any of these are contaminated, the toxins will be pulled into the plants, specifically into the leaves.

Anything that lands superficially on the leaves—such as intentionally sprayed pesticides or unintentional pollutants from a nearby highway—also finds its way into your tea. Even when a garden is certified organic, if it’s located too near a heavily traveled road there can be issues.

Teas that contain a lot of tips, such as white teas, are more prone to airborne contaminants because new growth occurs at the top of the branches, which are more exposed.

Cormeir cites a research study that tested 30 teabag teas, with these unsettling results:

All brewed teas contained lead with 73% of teas brewed for 3 minutes and 83% brewed for 15 minutes having lead levels considered unsafe for consumption during pregnancy and lactation. Aluminum levels were above recommended guidelines in 20% of brewed teas. (Schwalfenberg et al. 2013)

But a more recent study tested 41 green teas (of certified origin) for toxic metals, including cadmium and lead, and concluded:

Based on the FAO/WHO [Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations/World Health Organization] recommendations, we showed that consumption of green tea from China, Japan, India, and marketed tea is not associated with health hazards related to exposure to heavy metals such as Cd [cadmium]. Consumption of five cups of green tea per week does not pose a risk to human health. (Brzezicha-Cirocka et al. 2016)

But catch the “five cups per week” part?

And those cups are only 200 ml (6.8 oz) each. Which is only 34 ounces a week. Which is what I commonly drink per day!

desk and tea_crop copy

Contaminants: During Production

machine harvesting_cropThe chance for contamination doesn’t end in the tea garden, however. There are multiple avenues for toxins to be introduced.

Those teas that undergo lengthy processing—such as oolongs—are prone to more contamination simply because they are handled so much.

Hand-rolled teas? Presumably with clean hands.

Equipment can also be an unintentional culprit. In China, tea leaves are fried in woks; in India, rollers are used to process CTC (crush, tear, curl) tea; in Japan, much of the tea is harvested by machine.

And then there’s the storage until the tea is packaged, and the packaging step. . . .

So Should You Worry?

Well, possibly, if you have only an occasional cup of tea. But if you are pregnant, or your child is drinking tea, or you are worried about cumulative effects of ingesting toxins, or you’re concerned about tea workers handling contaminant-laced tea leaves and working in a compromised environment (see my last post on Nilgiris, India), well, then maybe you really do want to think about what you’re drinking.

You can start with organic—but be aware that “organic” does not completely guarantee contaminant-free tea, so try to assess if the tea brand or teashop you patronize gets their tea from reputable sources.

Know that some countries struggle with tea purity, so again, try to vet your supplier.

plucking_cropGermany ranks ninth for world tea imports (3.1% of all imported tea; for year 2017), but in a country known for strict food standards, they are compulsive about independent testing, both in the garden and after the tea has been produced. Therefore, tea that has met German testing standards will be among the cleanest teas available.

A very inexpensive tea might give you pause. Organic farming; high standards for handling tea leaves, during harvesting as well as processing; and testing all cost money. You should expect to pay for that.

Buy you’ll be paying in just money, pieces of paper and bits of metal, which can again be earned.

You will not be paying with your health, or the health of the worker who plucked that leaf, or the health of our environment. None of which is easily regained once lost.

–”The benefits and risks of consuming brewed tea: beware of toxic element contamination,” by G. Schwalfenberg et al., Journal of Toxicology, 2013, https://www.hindawi.com/journals/jt/2013/370460.
–”Is your favorite tea contaminated with toxic chemicals?,” by J. Cormier, Care 2, February 19, 2019, https://www.care2.com/greenliving/is-your-favorite-tea-contaminated-with-toxic-chemicals.html.
–”Monitoring of essential and heavy metals in green tea from different geographical origins,” by J. Brzezicha-Cirocka et al., Environmental Monitoring and Assessment 188 (2016):183, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4762913.
–”Pesticide residue monitoring program: Fiscal year 2014 pesticide report,” U.S. Food and Drug Administration, 2014, https://www.fda.gov/downloads/Food/FoodborneIllnessContaminants/Pesticides/UCM546325.pdf.

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