Lead Contamination of Tea

Lead Contamination of Tea
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How much green, white, black, and oolong tea can we consume before the benefits of tea start to be countered by the risks of lead contamination for children, pregnant women, and adults in general?

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China burns about half of the world’s coal, spewing heavy metals, such as mercury and lead, into the atmosphere and affecting the development of neighboring children. But what if you don’t live in China or eat anything produced in China? You could still be exposed to mercury that settles in the oceans if you eat fish and seafood, but some people drink something from China: tea. China is one of the biggest exporters, but their rapid industrialization has raised concerns about lead contamination. Lead is a toxin that can affect almost every organ in the body, and the more lead in the soil, the more that ends up in the tea leaves, and the closer the tea is grown to the highway, the higher the levels, suggesting leaded gas, which wasn’t banned until the year 2000, may also be playing a role.

And just like larger longer-living fish accumulate more mercury, longer living leaves accumulate more lead. Young tea leaves appear to have two to six times less lead than mature leaves; so, not only do the young leaves that are used to make green tea and white tea have significantly less lead than the older leaves used to make black and oolong tea, the lead in black and oolong tea appears to be released much more readily into the tea water when brewed. And so, the health risk from lead may be 100 times lower for green tea compared to oolong and black.

Since certain fungicides may have heavy metal impurities, one might assume organic teas would be less contaminated, but in a study of 30 common teas off North American store shelves, there did not seem to be less toxic element contamination than regular tea, though presumably organic tea would have much less pesticide contamination. In terms of lead, the source of the tea, the country of origin, appears to be the most important factor. So, bottom line, how much tea is safe to drink? Based on the most stringent safety limits in the world—like California’s Prop 65 parameters—and the largest studies of tea lead contamination from around the world, this is what I was able to come up with.

If you’re not pregnant, and just drinking green tea, it doesn’t matter where you get your tea from. You can drink as much as you want, but given the average levels of lead in Chinese black tea samples, more than three cups a day would exceed the daily safety limit for lead.

Now that’s if you’re drinking tea, throwing the tea leaves or tea bag away. If you’re eating the leaves, like drinking matcha tea, which is powdered green tea, or throwing tea leaves in your smoothie like I like to do, I wouldn’t add more than two or three heaping teaspoons unless, you’re using Japanese green tea, which is so low in lead that you can safely eat 15 spoonfuls a day—the only reason I would caution no more than eight is that could exceed the daily recommended limit for caffeine for adults.

What about children? If you’re a 70 pound 10-year-old, lead still isn’t a problem drinking green tea, but the safe caffeine intake for children is probably only down around three mg per kg, which would limit you to about four cups a day, though I wouldn’t add more than two spoonfuls of Japanese green tea to a child’s smoothie for caffeine reasons and more than one of Chinese green tea for lead reasons. Similarly, I wouldn’t like to see children drinking more than one cup of black tea a day and wouldn’t want them eating the leaves at all.

Pregnant women should be able to drink a cup a day of green tea throughout pregnancy, regardless of source, based on average tea lead levels, and the limit for Japanese tea is really just the caffeine limit, above four cups a day.  I wouldn’t recommend drinking black tea during pregnancy, though, or eating any kind of tea leaves, unless you know you’re getting tea from a low lead source.

To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video. This is just an approximation of the audio contributed by Katie Schloer.

Please consider volunteering to help out on the site.

Images thanks to Frank Douwes via Flickr.

China burns about half of the world’s coal, spewing heavy metals, such as mercury and lead, into the atmosphere and affecting the development of neighboring children. But what if you don’t live in China or eat anything produced in China? You could still be exposed to mercury that settles in the oceans if you eat fish and seafood, but some people drink something from China: tea. China is one of the biggest exporters, but their rapid industrialization has raised concerns about lead contamination. Lead is a toxin that can affect almost every organ in the body, and the more lead in the soil, the more that ends up in the tea leaves, and the closer the tea is grown to the highway, the higher the levels, suggesting leaded gas, which wasn’t banned until the year 2000, may also be playing a role.

And just like larger longer-living fish accumulate more mercury, longer living leaves accumulate more lead. Young tea leaves appear to have two to six times less lead than mature leaves; so, not only do the young leaves that are used to make green tea and white tea have significantly less lead than the older leaves used to make black and oolong tea, the lead in black and oolong tea appears to be released much more readily into the tea water when brewed. And so, the health risk from lead may be 100 times lower for green tea compared to oolong and black.

Since certain fungicides may have heavy metal impurities, one might assume organic teas would be less contaminated, but in a study of 30 common teas off North American store shelves, there did not seem to be less toxic element contamination than regular tea, though presumably organic tea would have much less pesticide contamination. In terms of lead, the source of the tea, the country of origin, appears to be the most important factor. So, bottom line, how much tea is safe to drink? Based on the most stringent safety limits in the world—like California’s Prop 65 parameters—and the largest studies of tea lead contamination from around the world, this is what I was able to come up with.

If you’re not pregnant, and just drinking green tea, it doesn’t matter where you get your tea from. You can drink as much as you want, but given the average levels of lead in Chinese black tea samples, more than three cups a day would exceed the daily safety limit for lead.

Now that’s if you’re drinking tea, throwing the tea leaves or tea bag away. If you’re eating the leaves, like drinking matcha tea, which is powdered green tea, or throwing tea leaves in your smoothie like I like to do, I wouldn’t add more than two or three heaping teaspoons unless, you’re using Japanese green tea, which is so low in lead that you can safely eat 15 spoonfuls a day—the only reason I would caution no more than eight is that could exceed the daily recommended limit for caffeine for adults.

What about children? If you’re a 70 pound 10-year-old, lead still isn’t a problem drinking green tea, but the safe caffeine intake for children is probably only down around three mg per kg, which would limit you to about four cups a day, though I wouldn’t add more than two spoonfuls of Japanese green tea to a child’s smoothie for caffeine reasons and more than one of Chinese green tea for lead reasons. Similarly, I wouldn’t like to see children drinking more than one cup of black tea a day and wouldn’t want them eating the leaves at all.

Pregnant women should be able to drink a cup a day of green tea throughout pregnancy, regardless of source, based on average tea lead levels, and the limit for Japanese tea is really just the caffeine limit, above four cups a day.  I wouldn’t recommend drinking black tea during pregnancy, though, or eating any kind of tea leaves, unless you know you’re getting tea from a low lead source.

To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video. This is just an approximation of the audio contributed by Katie Schloer.

Please consider volunteering to help out on the site.

Images thanks to Frank Douwes via Flickr.

Doctor's Note

This is one of the things that changed my daily diet.

I’ve long been an advocate of teas. If you look at my smoothie recipe in A Better Breakfast, for example, you’ll see I’ve recommended throwing in tea leaves, and Is Matcha Good for You? doesn’t hide the fact that I’ve been a big fan of matcha. I still enjoy doing both, but am now more careful about where my tea is sourced. As soon as I learned of this, I made announcements on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ to inform everyone before I even started making this video. So, if you closely follow my recommendations (which I elaborate on extensively in my book How Not to Die), please make sure to keep an eye on our social media where I can post updates within minutes of learning about the latest news.

I’ve got a whole slew of new tea videos coming out, but here are some of the ones I’ve done over the last year or two:

Where else might you find heavy metal risk (besides my music collection :) ?

If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here.

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