Health Conundrum: Pesticides in Tea

When companies sell non-organic tea produced with pesticides, what are consumers really sipping?

Tea, an ancient plant first discovered in China, is today arguably the most popular beverage in the world. Millions of people from every corner of the world drink tea primarily for its many health benefits and soothing, energetic and/or medicinal qualities.

Yet, many consumers may not know that tea leaves are primarily dried and not washed after they are harvested. Why is that important? If the tea is not organically grown, toxic synthetic pesticide residues can – and sometimes do – remain on conventionally grown tea leaves until the first time they touch water – in your cup.

Residues Exceed Limits

Organizations including Greenpeace and CBC News conducted independent testing on tea leaves, and found that 59% of samples tested contained pesticide residues in excess of EU government limits. Testing also found that 67% of tea leaves sampled in India contained residues of the pesticide DDT, banned in India since 1989 and in the US since 1972. Some teas were found to contain more than one pesticide, and one tea product tested by CBC, the Canadian Broadcast Corporation, contained 22 different pesticides.

“Some of the pesticides found – including endosulfan and monocrotophos — are in the process of being banned from use in some countries because of dangers to the environment and to workers,” CBC said in an article on March 8, 2014. Endosulfan has been banned globally under the Stockholm Convention due to its particularly toxic properties.

Additionally, Greenpeace in 2013 randomly tested 18 tea products from China – the world’s largest tea producer and one of the world’s largest users of pesticides – and found that “a whopping 12 of the 18 samples tested contained at least one pesticide banned [in China] for use on tea.”

Even teas carrying “natural” claims may not be immune to pesticide residues if they have been conventionally grown using synthetic pesticides, reports Vani Hari, editor and publisher of Food Babe, a blog dedicated to promoting healthy lifestyles and investigating food companies and their products.

Don’t Panic – Drink Organic!

So what’s a tea lover who wants to avoid pesticide residues to do? Friends of the Earth suggests drinking tea that is organically produced without the use of toxic, synthetic insecticides, herbicides or fertilizers.

One tea maker, Belight Tea of Phoenix, AZ, offered this advice to tea drinkers on its blog:

“Generally speaking, white tea tends to have the least pesticide residues; black tea the most. That has to do with picking time: the longer the leaves are on the bush, the more they are exposed to, whether intentionally or inadvertently.”

Another organic tea company adds, “From the outset, we’ve been committed to 100% organic cultivation,” said Linda Appel Lipsius, Co-Founder and CEO of Denver-based Teatulia Organic Teas. Teatulia sources its teas from its own 3,000-acre, USDA Certified Organic and Rainforest Alliance Certified tea garden in Northern Bangladesh. “Transparency is key where possible,” she said. “Since we are the farmers, organic tea produced without the use of toxic, synthetic pesticides is something we have always been able to guarantee.“