Toxins in your tea: What you need to know

cup of tea

Black tea, white tea, green tea, oolong tea, herbal tea. Do you drink tea every day like I do? I drink green tea but also herbal teas and fruit infusions. As consumers we don’t really think much about the tea we drink and where our tea comes from but we really should especially if we consume large quantities of tea every day.

Do you know what exactly you are drinking? I decided to investigate and share some of the shocking discoveries with you.

Where tea comes from

China and India are two of the largest tea producers in the world with China taking the first place in tea production. China is also the biggest tea exporter with a big proportion of their tea being exported internationally.

If you drink tea it’s very likely you are drinking tea from China. And here is where the problem lies. Did you know that China is also the world’s largest user of pesticides? In 2012 Greenpeace’s investigation uncovered a massive use of chemical pesticides in Chinese tea. They took samples from nine well-known companies and these samples were sent to an accredited third-party laboratory for pesticide testing. Shockingly all of the tea samples contained a variety of pesticides and illegal pesticides were found on 12 samples. The tea tested was green tea, oolong tea and jasmine tea.

Ok, it’s been a while since these samples were taken and things have probably changed since then, but still, you should be aware of your tea’s origins. I am very positive that some tea you drink will contain higher pesticide residue than other. At the end of the day farmers do use pesticides for growing tea but some pesticides are more harmful than others. In Japan they have stricter regulations on farming and their laws on pesticides are checked regularly. There is a much better chance of fewer pesticides in Japanese green tea.

tea plantation
Tea plantation

You could of course choose organic to avoid any pesticides altogether but again, organic tea from China may not be the best. China is one of the most polluted countries in the world with high water and soil pollution – this makes growing truly organic foods almost impossible and there is a big question of whether the organic produce is truly organic. Anybody can put a label on a product to say it’s organic but who checks how organic the product is, especially in China where corruption is wide-spread?

Also to note, if the farm is purely organic, they may still have a neighboring farm which is not and the pesticides their neighbours use could be transferred to the organic farm by air (when spraying). The pesticides can leach deep into the underground water and again this can also reach the organic land. So, do you see now how growing truly organic tea in China could be a bit of a challenge?

Lead in tea

Pesticides are just one example of toxins which can be found in your favourite drink. Lead is another common toxin you are drinking.  


Lead is a toxin that can affect almost any organ in the body and the more lead in the soil the more it ends up in tea leaves. The levels of lead in tea depend on a few different factors but the country of origin appears to be the most important.

Gerry Schwalfenberg et al. who wrote an article about toxic contamination in tea (Journal of Toxicology), put together a table with heavy metals in tea according to the country of origin. Here is the exact table from the article:

Tea type Tea country of origin High levels Moderate levels Low levels
Green tea organic China Pb, Al As Cd
Green tea organic Sri Lanka     Low in Pb, Cd, Al, As
Green tea organic Japan   As, Pb, Cd, Al  
Green tea standard China High in Al Pb, As Low in Cd
White tea India     Lowest in Al, Pb, Cd, As
White tea China   Pb, Al, As Low in Cd
Oolong tea organic China Highest in As, high in Pb, Al   Low in Cd
Oolong tea standard China Highest in Pb Al, Cd, As  
Black tea organic Blend India
Sri Lanka
Al Pb Low in Cd, As
Black tea standard India
Sri Lanka
Al   Lowest Pb, low in Cd, As

Pb: lead, Cd: cadmium, Al: aluminum, As: arsenic.

From the table above you can see that even organic teas have high levels of specific heavy metals such as lead and aluminum. The levels of heavy metals depend pretty much on the country of origins. The safest teas seemed to be organic green teas from Sri Lanka and Japan and white tea from India. 

Aluminum in tea

Aluminum is found naturally in soil and the tea plants can absorb it through their roots. After absorption, aluminum is then deposited in concentrations in tea leaves, but how much aluminum is actually found in tea leaves depends on various factors. Acid soil for example, may result in excess available aluminum (and mercury).

Aluminum is not something we need in our bodies and although it is less toxic than most heavy metals consuming too much of it is not safe (it’s actually been linked to Alzheimer’s). Again, the levels of aluminum in tea depend on a country of origins, as per the table above.
Black and green teas have been found to contain more aluminium than fruit or herbal teas.

Conclusion

In this article I’ve mentioned just a few of the common pollutants found in today’s teas but others exist such as mercury, cadmium and fluoride.

Keep in mind that a clean growing environment is essential to producing a pure, high-quality tea.

When selecting tea of any kind, it should preferably be certified organic (to avoid pesticides) and grown in a pristine environment because tea is known to accumulate fluoride, heavy metals and other toxins from soil and water.

References:
http://www.greenpeace.org/eastasia/publications/reports/food-agriculture/2012/pesticides-chinese-tea-report/
http://www.green-tea-guide.com/pesticides-in-green-tea.html
http://www.hindawi.com/journals/jt/2013/370460/
http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2013/07/03/green-tea-benefits.aspx
http://ratetea.com/topic/aluminum-in-tea/108/

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