Do you know what's in your tea?
Credit: Pixabay photo by Hans

What's in Your Cup of Tea?

Few things are more comforting on a crisp day than sitting at your kitchen table sipping on a cup of hot tea.

In recent years, we've been sold on the benefits of this popular beverage, especially green tea, which contains various anti-oxidants and immune-boosting compounds.

However, a recent report from Greenpeace International sheds light on a disturbing fact. Much of the tea harvested in India, it found, contains dangerous levels of pesticides. Many of these chemicals by themselves are hazardous. One can only speculate on the dangers of ingesting one or more of them together, as this could potentially create an even more toxic brew.

Indian tea may have been seen as a safer alternative to Japanese tea, as some people are now concerned about the potential for higher-than-normal radiation levels in Japanese food exports, in the wake of the March 2011 Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster.

However, pesticide contamination in Indian tea appears to be a huge issue.

Nearly 95 percent of the teas tested in the India sampling had at least one pesticide. Most of them, though, had residue from 10 or more different types of bug-killing chemicals. One batch was found to have a whopping 20 types of pesticides.

In total, nearly 35 different pesticides were detected on Indian tea leaves.

The tea for the study was purchased from different suppliers, from different cities and at different times, lending more credence to the accuracy of the study. Also, some of the biggest tea packagers in Great Britain and the United States were importing leaves with unacceptable levels of contamination, according to the report.

Tea Plantation
Credit: Pixabay photo by FonthipWard

DDT Found in Some Tea

Despite the fact that DDT is no longer permitted on agriculture in India, an alarming number of the study samples contained measurable amounts of this toxic and controversial insecticide, now banned throughout the world for use on food crops. This chemical, which most likely disrupts the hormones, has been linked to an increased risk of developing diabetes. There is also some evidence that exposure before birth may lead to developmental problems in children.

Whether DDT can cause cancer is an open question. According to the United States Centers for Disease Control, the answer is no. However, the Environmental Protection Agency considers it a "probable" carcinogen.

DDT was eventually banned for food crops because it was demonstrated to negatively affect the reproduction of wildlife. However, this chemical is still manufactured for use as general insect control.

Concerns Over Other Pesticides

It appears as if some growers are using pesticides that aren't registered with the Indian government for use on tea leaves, the Greenpeace report noted. Approximately 68 percent of the pesticides found during testing were not registered.

One pesticide in particular is monocrotophus, a highly-toxic chemical banned in the United States and in a number of other nations. This is the notorious compound that killed 23 Indian children, who ate a school lunch containing lethal concentrations. (Many more of their classmates were sickened, but survived.)

Undoubtedly, the attraction of using this effective pesticide is its low cost.

A minority of the tea samples (about 5 percent) contained triazophos, a chemical used to control insects in Asia, but banned throughout the European Union.

Greenpeace found that the most common pesticide residues were thiamethoxam, cypermethrin, acetimiprid and thiacloprid.

Many, many tons of these pesticides are apparently used on Indian tea crops, as the country is the world's second-large exporter of tea. Only China ships more tea leaves around the globe. The tea industry is very important to India economy, as more than one million people are directly involved in cultivation, packing, shipping and production, Greenpeace noted.

The Greenpeace report went beyond the potential health risks to the consumers from around the world, who drink Indian tea. It also focused on concerns about the plantation workers being exposed to these chemicals, as well as the effect of these insecticides on the Indian waterways and ecosystem.

It concluded that the subcontinent is on the "pesticide treadmill."

Tea is a Major Indian Industry

The release of the Greenpeace report made headlines in the Times of India, the subcontinent's leading daily newspaper.

However, the results were refuted by the Tea Board of India, according to another published report in an Indian business publication called the SME Times. The board was also quoted as saying Indian tea is perfectly safe to drink because of "stringent standards" in place.

Shortly after Greenpeace's report was released, the Indian Crop Care Federation said the claims were unsubstantiated.

A healthy brew?
Credit: Pixabay photo by Lebbensmittelphotos

Who's to Blame?

The Greenpeace Report laid the blame solely on tea regulations on the vast Indian subcontinent, home to more than 1.2 billion people. The agency that overseas registration of pesticides on food crops is the Central Insecticide Board and Registration Committee, also known as CIBRC.

However, Greenpeace investigators found that some more localized organizations and governing bodies have, at times, said it's alright to use some pesticides otherwise not allowed by CIBRC. This situation, according to Greenpeace, creates "confusion," as well as the possibility of "misuse" of insecticides.

Furthermore, Greenpeace noted, there is scarce oversight on the acceptable upper limit of pesticide residue found in tea.

Pesticide Residue also Found in Chinese Tea

The India tea report comes on the heels of another blockbuster investigation into the amount of pesticide residue found on Chinese tea samples, a study released by Greenpeace in 2012.

China, a vast and populous country, consumes and exports more tea than any other nation. However, the Greenpeace report on Chinese tea production noted that the "massive" use of pesticides and other chemicals is "seriously" hurting the safety of its tea.

A total of 18 samples were tested by an independent laboratory and the findings revealed that two-thirds of these had detectable levels of several pesticides that were supposed to be banned.

Every sample of the Chinese teas tested had some levels of multiple pesticides, according to Greenpeace.