Pesticides in Tea: Is Your Favorite Tea Contaminated with Harmful Chemicals?

Man spraying pesticides on tea plants with other side of image showing dry loose tea bags

There’s nothing nicer than sipping on a warm cup of herbal tea on a cold midwinter’s day. But besides being tasty and warming, tea provides a host of different health benefits – that is, unless your tea is soaked in pesticides.

CBC News recently conducted an investigation on the pesticide levels in some of the most major tea-producing companies. Using an accredited lab, the investigators utilized testing methods employed by the National Food Inspection Agency to test pesticide residues on dry tea leaves.

Pesticides in Tea

The investigators at CBC found that over half of all teas tested had pesticide residues that were above the legally acceptable limit.

Multiple chemicals were found in 8 out of 10 teas, with one brand of tea containing over 22 different types of pesticides (Uncle Lee’s Legends of China tea brand).

A large majority of these pesticides are currently being banned in several countries due to the health risks they pose to workers that handle them, and the negative effects they have on the environment (as well as the health of those that consume the products).

Environmental lawyer, David Boyd, told CBC:

“This is very worrisome from a number of perspectives…The presence of so many pesticides on a single product and so many products that exceed the maximum residue limits for pesticides, suggests that we’re seeing very poor agricultural practices in countries, which poses risk to the environment where these products are being grown; which pose risk to the farmworkers who are growing these crops, and ultimately pose risk to the Canadians who are consuming these products.”

Endosulfan

For example, endosulfan, one of the most toxic pesticides on the market today, was found in Uncle Lee’s Legends of China Green Tea and Tetley Pure Green Tea.

Endosulfan is a chlorinated insecticide that is chemically similar to the infamous DDT (which was banned over 48 years ago).

More than 80 countries, including the European Union, Australia, New Zealand, several West African nations, the United States, Brazil, and Canada have already banned endosulfan or announced phase-outs by 2017 (1, 2, 3, 4, 5).

Despite a large number of countries and the European Union having already banned the use of endosulfan, residues are still being detected in tea (Camellia sinensis) (6, 7), due to its extensive use in China (8),
the world’s largest tea grower and exporter.

Companies like Tetley source their tea from India and Argentina (9).

Uncle Lee’s Legends of China sources their tea from China. As stated on the description of their boxed Green Tea “Uncle Lee’s famous non-fermented green tea is freshly grown and harvested from a tea plantation in the Fu-Jian province of China” (10).

It should also be taken into consideration that even though certain bans have taken place, endosulfan residues still exist.

It could take years before the soils which were once sprayed with endosulfan are clear of the chemical (11).

Other Pesticides

Endosulfan isn’t the only pesticide to be worried about.

Acetamaprid is a neonicotinoid and agricultural insecticide resembling nicotine, which is currently banned in Canada and elsewhere. Acetamaprid is not only linked to declines in bee health but “may adversely affect human health, especially the developing brain” (12).

Bifenthrin is classified as a “possible human carcinogen” by the U.S. EPA (similar to glyphosate). This pesticide lasts a long time in the environment and it may accumulate in fish. It is also highly toxic to fish and small aquatic organisms and is deadly for bees (13).

Carbendazim is a fungicide that has been banned in the U.S., but is still currently legal in countries like Brazil, China and India (14). Carbendazim has been found to have adverse effects on male reproductive systems in rats (15), and is also labeled as a potent endocrine-disrupting substance (16), and is highly genotoxic (17).

Monocrotophos, an organophosphate insecticide is acutely toxic to birds and humans and has been banned from the United States, European Union, and many other countries. Monocrotophos remained legal in India until late 2017, and are currently being phased out (18). 

The loose regulations around testing pesticides in tea before packaging has left a lot of tea products tainted with different contaminants. The same is true for many foods sourced from areas where pesticides aren’t strictly regulated.

Some teas are still testing positive for endosulfan and other harmful pesticides to this day (19, 20).

But why shouldn’t there be restrictions on products containing these pesticides? If they’re banned in one country, shouldn’t products that also contain them also be banned?

What Tea Has The Most Pesticides?

Many of the world’s top tea producers – China, India, Sri Lanka, Kenya, Turkey – have been growing tea crops for centuries.

Unfortunately, much of the pesticide use in these regions isn’t tightly regulated.

In 2014, CBC tested 10 different brands of tea for pesticides. Half of the teas tested contained pesticide residues above the allowable limits in Canada.

Greenpeace also released a study exposing many popular tea brands that contain high levels of pesticide residues. Some brands of tea even tested positive for DDT, an incredibly toxic pesticide that was banned years ago.

And yet another round of tests conducted by Glaucus Research found that 91% of Celestial Seasonings tea tested had pesticide residues exceeding the U.S. limits. For example, Sleepytime Kids Goodnight Grape Herbal contained 0.26 ppm of propachlor, which is a known carcinogen under California’s Proposition 65.

To view the full results and pesticides used in each tea, you can find them here (CBC), here (Greenpeace), and here (Glaucus).

The tea companies that were found to contain the highest pesticide levels were as follows, starting with the 8 most popular brands:

  • Tetley
    – Pure Green Tea
    – Long Leaf Green Tea
  • Twinings
    – Classic Assam Tea
    – Classic Lady Grey
    – English Breakfast
    – Earl Grey
  • Uncle Lee’s Legends of China
    – Green Tea
    – Jasmine Green Tea
  • Celestial Seasonings
    – Authentic Green Tea
    – Antioxidant Max Blackberry Pomegranate
    – Antioxidant Max Blood Orange
    – Antioxidant Max Dragon Fruit
    – English Breakfast Black K-Cup
    – Green Tea Honey Lemon Ginger
    – Green Tea Peach Blossom
    – Green Tea Raspberry Gardens
    – Sleepytime Herbal Teas (Flagship)
    – Sleepytime Kids Goodnight Grape Herbal
  • Lipton
    – Clear Green Tea
    – Darjeeling Tea
    – Pure Green Tea
    – Yellow Label Black Tea
  • King Cole
    – Orange Pekoe
  • Signal
    – Orange Pekoe Two Cups

Less popular brands with pesticides:

  • Brooke Bond
    – Red Label
    – Red Label Natural Care
    – Red Label Special
    – 3 Roses Natural Care
    – Taj Mahal
  • Golden Tips
    – Nilgiri Tea
    – Pure Darjeeling Tea
    – Assam Tea
  • Goodricke
    – Chai Strong CTC Long Leaf
    – Roasted Darjeeling – Orange Pekoe
    – Thurbo Flavoury Darjeeling Tea
    – Thurbo Flavoury Darjeeling Tea
  • Kho Cha
    – Darjeeling
    – Masala Chai
  • Tata Tea
    – Tata Tea Gold
    – Tata Tea Life
    – Tata Tea Premium
  • Wagh Bakri
    – Good Morning Tea
    – Perfect Premium Leaf Tea
    – Strong & Refreshing Premium Leaf Tea

Again, if you want to read the full reports, you can find them here:

Here is the short video documented by CBC investigators on pesticides in popular tea brands:

What Tea Brands Are Pesticide Free?

Since not every brand and every flavor of tea has been tested, it is difficult to give a complete answer on which tea brands are pesticide-free.

The best thing you can do is source your tea from companies that are certified organic. Since pesticide and herbicide use is prohibited on organic crops, it is safe to say that organic teas wouldn’t contain dangerous levels of pesticides (as for heavy metals, that isn’t quite the case as you’ll see below).

Some tea companies I would trust as free from pesticide residues are as follows:

What Do The Companies Have to Say?

None of the companies mentioned above have released a statement saying that they are going to ensure these pesticides don’t end up in their teas.

Celestial Seasonings released a statement stating that once they saw these results, they sent their teas for testing to the National Food Lab (NFL).

They stated that:

“NFL’s independent testing reaffirmed that Celestial Seasonings teas are safe and follow strict industry guidelines. In addition, NFL detected no pesticides in the brewed Celestial Seasonings teas they tested.”

They then go on to say:

“We reject ingredients when these substances are detected beyond acceptable limits as defined by industry-recognized and/or government agencies, including the U.S. EPA, U.S. FDA, European Union Pharmacopeial Convention, and Codex Alimentarius.”

Just because there is an “acceptable limit” for a pesticide, doesn’t mean it’s necessarily safe. This is what used to be said of DDT and endosulfan – so where do we set the line?

According to the EWG:

“The EPA’s tolerance levels are too lenient to protect public health. They are a yardstick to help the agency’s personnel determine whether farmers are applying pesticides properly. The levels were set years ago and do not account for newer research showing that toxic chemicals can be harmful at very small doses, particularly when people are exposed to combinations of chemicals.” (21)

CBC also interviewed James O’Young, vice president of Uncle Lee’s Legends of China (whose tea had the highest number of pesticides). He said that pesticides are a reality of the tea industry and that “If you drink tea, regular tea, I don’t care it’s what brand is that, the fact of life, this agricultural product does have pesticides,” he said (22).

Unilever, which owns Lipton and Red Rose, wrote in a statement, “Unilever is fully confident in the safety of our teas.”

TATA Global Beverages, which owns Tetley stated that “Consumer safety is very important to us. Upon receiving your communication, we proactively retrieved the test results from the independent laboratory that tested the raw tea used in this batch code which confirmed that our tea complies with all Canadian food safety regulations and is of high quality.” (23)

Is there really a safe way to consume pesticides? Not really. That’s why I always recommend choosing organic brands over conventional.

Not Just Pesticides

It isn’t only pesticides you should be concerned about in your teas, either. Heavy metals, natural flavors, and plastics are just a few additional things you need to take into consideration before you settle in for a cup of your favorite brew of tea.

Heavy Metals in Tea

Something that not many people are aware of or talk about is the levels of toxic heavy metals present in tea.

 A 2013 study published in the Journal of Toxicology revealed that over 70% of teas contained high levels of lead, while 20% tested positive for aluminum and other metals (24).

Buying organic? That’s not going to protect you either!

The study revealed: “The organic teas had significantly higher levels of lead contamination if left steeping for more than 15 minutes than the regular teas. Otherwise, there was no significant difference in levels of contaminants between organic teas and regular off the shelf teas.”

Black teas seemed to show up as the worst contaminated of them all, with green teas having a bit lower heavy metal concentration.

The authors then go on to say that public health warnings or other regulations should be set in place as there are no existing guidelines for routine testing or reporting toxicant levels in tea products.

A large majority of our teas come from countries like China who burns about half of the world’s coal, spewing heavy metals such as mercury and lead into the atmosphere. It’s no surprise, then, that these metals are showing up in our teas.

Natural Flavors in Tea

Companies like Celestial Seasonings, TAZO, Teavana, Trader Joe’s, Lipton, Bigelow, Tea Forté and Twinings add “natural flavors” to trick the consumer into thinking they are buying better, cleaner ingredients.

Natural flavors can contain solvents, emulsifiers, and preservatives that aid in separating the natural flavor complex from the original botanical source.

Just one natural flavor can contain between 50 to 100 ingredients and yet it’s still described as a singular “natural flavor” to you, the consumer. 

Ingredients like natural and/or artificial flavors are often produced by fractional distillation and chemical manipulation of various chemicals like crude oil or coal tar. It doesn’t sound like something anyone wants in their morning tea.

Plastics in Tea

The amount of microplastics released in a single cup of tea is in the billions, according to a new study.

The study, published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, found that steeping a plastic tea bag at a brewing temperature of 95ªC releases around 11.6 billion microplastics — tiny pieces of plastic between 100 nanometers and 5 millimeters in size — into a single cup.

These levels were thousands of times higher than those reported previously in other foods.

Do you know those popular triangle “silk” mesh bags and sachets? Those are made of GMO corn-based plastic (polylactic acid), that can leach harmful chemicals that disrupt hormone function.

Researchers from PlastiPure, CertiChem, and Georgetown University tested products made from polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP), polystyrene (PS), polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polylactic acid (PLA), polyethylene terephthalate glycol (PETG), and polyethersulfone (PES) and said that all show detectable estrogenic activity (EA) levels (23).

Bleached Tea Bags

Plastics aren’t the only thing lurking in tea bags.

Unfortunately, a lot of the conventional tea companies out there use bleached tea bags.

Not only are they bleached, but some paper tea bags contain the pesticide Epichlorohydrin, a compound used to keep the bags from dissolving in hot water.

While the leaching of chemicals from these tea bags is quite low, when placing them in boiling water, their leaching potential increases.

The best thing to do is to avoid these toxic teas and tea bags altogether.

Below are some options you might want to consider when purchasing tea.

How To Avoid Contaminants In Your Tea

This isn’t to say you have to stop drinking tea. In fact, there are many safe options out there for all tea lovers alike. Here are some things you can do to ensure the tea your drinking is body-safe.

  1. Buy organic, non-GMO certified brands of tea.
  2. Grow your own tea herbs to dry and store in mason jars as your own personal tea blends.
  3. Check ingredient listings on teas to avoid added flavors and GMO ingredients.
  4. Purchase organic loose leaf tea (this will save you money in the long run, and avoid the guessing game of what your tea bags are made out of). Coastal Roots Apothecary sells some amazing loose-leaf blends that are 100% organic and crafted by their community herbalists.
  5. Make sure your tea bags are unbleached, organic, and made without the use of plastic (you can read my article on that here).
  6. Choose from brands like Organic Traditional Medicinals, Numi Organic, Organic Stash Tea, Choice Organic Teas, or other teas in your local health food store (always be sure to check ingredients!).

The unfortunate reality is that avoiding heavy metals in tea, organic or not, is a bit of a difficult task. As we’ve seen, organic green and herbal teas seem to be the most safe, but when it comes to black tea, it might be best to avoid altogether.

What is your favorite brand of tea to drink, and would you consider switching it up for an organic brand? Let me know in the comments below!

woman holding out cup of tea with text - toxic pesticides, heavy metals, plastic & more found in popular brands of tea

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