China produces the most tea on Earth. It’s also one of the most polluted countries on Earth. Yet, in my humble opinion and that of many other tea connoisseurs, specialty Chinese tea is some of the best. What you’re probably wondering is this:

Are Chinese teas safe from pollution?

Like the Chinese tea industry itself, the answer is multi-faceted and can be difficult to sort through, especially in a shorter article, but I’ll try my best to sum up the factors involved and what you need to consider when buying Chinese tea.

Issue #1

The first cause for concern, the one most of you are probably thinking of, is air pollution and the effect that has on tea growing regions. Unfortunately, lots of Chinese tea has been found to have traces of lead, arsenic, and aluminum. Dozens of studies have proven this fact, although many of the studies were collecting samples from the 1980s and 90s and may be less relevant today considering how the Chinese tea industry has improved due to both internal and external pressure. One of the more accessible studies from 2013 took 30 different teas off grocery store shelves and tested them for heavy metals. They found that over 73% of the teas contained traces of lead and 20% contained aluminum above recommended guidelines. The study continued to explain the hazards of large amounts of heavy metals on the body, while still espousing the health benefits of tea. Other studies have shown similar results in store-bought tea.

Issue #2

The second issue of concern is the use of harmful pesticides. This issue is actually the bigger problem and more concerning than pollution to tea producers and distributors.

Note: I’ve grouped pesticides together here as “pollution” even though that’s not what it technically is, considering it’s entirely purposeful and not wholly bad. Whereas the term pollution connotes a negative environmental impact, the term pesticides has been negatively influenced by the industrial use of harmful pesticides. There are pesticides that are totally harmless and many are used frequently in organic farming. In fact, without the use of pesticides, it would be practically impossible to feed the seven billion people on this planet. And let’s not forget, caffeine most likely evolved as a natural pesticide (and one of the contributing factors as to why we drink these beverages!).

Although there are plenty of studies looking into pesticide use, the most attention grabbing headlines came from Greenpeace when they published studies on Chinese tea (2012) and Indian tea (2014), much to to the chagrin of the tea industry. Their results sound worrisome, finding illegal or unlisted pesticide residue in most of the teas sampled, and higher amounts than the legal limit in many samples.

Where is this contamination coming from?

#1. China’s dominance as a coal consumer and the prevalence of their coal producing mines is the biggest reason for contamination. They’re the world’s largest producer and consumer of coal, at nearly half of all global use, with the United States coming in second, followed by India. The refining and burning of coal has been one of the main contributors to the absurdly high pollution in Chinese cities; and there can be little doubt that this is the main factor leading to contamination of some teas from China.

Note: Earlier studies, from the 1980s and 1990s, showed higher levels of lead in many teas, most likely because leaded gasoline had yet to be banned there (it’s been banned since 2000).

#2. Pesticide use is prevalent in practically every crop on Earth that has high value on the market, especially when it’s grown en masse as a monoculture. Like all plants, tea can be susceptible to pests, thus if you’re a large company producing vast quantities of tea, it makes sense to protect your investment, sometimes by any means necessary. If you buy your produce from from a grocery store chain, chances are most of the plants you eat have used a pesticide of some sort.

Should I Worry?

Is this cause for concern? There’s too much science surrounding this to ignore it, but when we read the specifics, we can learn quite a bit about how we can become better consumers.

Response to Issue #1

Don’t buy cheap tea. All the teas tested (in nearly every study I’ve seen) are off-the-shelf varieties from big name companies. Many studies specifically endeavored to test only the biggest name brands; essentially the Liptons and Twinings of China (companies like Tenfu Tea and China Tea Company Limited and their subsidiaries).

This makes sense doesn’t it?

  • The growing regions of base-quality tea are very large and controlled by pesticides to avoid crop collapse.
  • Transportation costs rise with so much product, thus they tend to be in low-lying regions, close to cities and industrial areas. Here they can be grown in bulk and can be processed and distributed easily to the cities for export.
  • Cities tend to be near coal plants, and air pollutants from the coal plants cling to lowland areas, i.e. the areas where they grow poor quality bulk tea.

Air pollutants decline sharply the higher in elevation and further away from industrial areas you travel. It’s important to note that the worst offenders of air pollution are in Chinese provinces where they grow little to no tea, and definitely not the good-quality stuff. Thus, buy higher quality tea from smaller producers, ones whom you know grow in regions that are rural and higher elevation. (And if you don’t know where it comes from, then… seriously?)

Try an example: Let’s say you’ve been buying a generic brand of canned corn from the grocery, but are concerned about the quality. Chances are the corn comes from Iowa, where there are 72 operating coal power units (thats a real figure) and this fact has made you not want to buy corn from the grocery anymore. Would you then be equally worried about purchasing fresh small-farm corn from your local Farmer’s Market instead? Probably not.

If you need more convincing, think about it in terms of scale. China is nearly as large as the United States. Los Angeles (where I currently live) is one of the most polluted cities, in terms of air quality, in the nation. I doubt this stops anyone from buying wine from the Central Coast, around Santa Barbara, a mere 87 miles away. Why? Because Los Angeles is in a valley (low-lying area) and is separated from Santa Barbara by the Santa Monica Mountains and the Los Padres National Forest. Geography plays a big role here, even over small distances.

Response to Issue #2

According to Austin Hodge, owner of Seven Cups Fine Chinese Teas, good tea and pesticides simply don’t mix. For someone like Hodge, who imports excellent quality small-farm teas, pollution just isn’t a problem. The issue he faces is keeping pesticides out of teas from these regions. Although he can import quality tea from a pesticide-free farm he has a relationship with, a problem can still lie in neighboring tea farms using pesticides. The wide scale use of too many pesticides is a problem that’s shrinking, but more pressure must be put on tea growers to grow cleanly, organically, or biodynamically.

Remember, an “Organic” marker doesn’t mean no pesticides”, it simply means natural-based pesticides, and “pesticides” doesn’t automatically mean “unsafe”.

It’s easy to forget when there’s a language and cultural barrier between us, but the Chinese are equally focused on the safety and regulation of their teas. It’s a well known problem that most agree needs to be dealt with. Andrew McNeill, also of Seven Cups, contacted a representative from the Chinese International Tea Culture Institute, who passed along over a dozen Chinese studies detailing the standards, tests, and regulations in place to protect and educate consumers and distributors. One of the main people tackling the issue is Chen Zongmao, Vice Chairman of the International Tea Association and Honorary Chairman of the Chinese Tea Society. He’s made it his personal mission to educate people on the topic of pesticide residue, while also creating an ethical environment for tea growing in China. It’s reassuring to know that they’re just as concerned as we are.

The science isn’t entirely straightforward when it comes to how much pesticide residue might still be on the tea leaf, how soluble this is in water when you brew the leaves, and just what effect this might have on your health. The general consensus is that ethical use of legal pesticides leave very little on the leaf after full processing, most of these compounds aren’t water soluble, and the amounts you might ingest are so low as to be insignificant. To date, I can find no evidence that anyone has gotten sick from tea due to harmful pesticide residue. Numerous doctors reviewing the evidence have come to the conclusion that, even in worst case scenarios, as long as you moderate your tea intake, you have no need to worry.

When you buy tea from a company that knows their farmers directly, and the farmers are committed to making excellent quality tea, it makes a world of difference. Buy smart, from ethical producers and distributors, and I earnestly believe you have no cause for concern.

In other words, look before you steep.


Photo Credit: vhines200 on Flickr.