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Is the Tea You Drink Making You Sick?

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cup of tea

Wake up tea drinkers! That oolong tea or tall glass of iced tea you’re about to sip might give you cancer.

Before you sip that morning tea, check to see where it was grown and harvested. Over 22 percent of the tea consumed in the US comes from China. (1)

If it came from China, then according to the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) and the World Trade Organization (WTO), you may want to put that teacup back onto the saucer.

The Chinese tea crops are sprayed with an insecticide called endosulfan that both agencies have declared to be harmful to the environment and human health. This poisonous chemical is a known carcinogen; a pesticide that the WTO has recommended members discontinue using.

A recent announcement by the EPA that allows the continued use of insecticides common in China tea production has become not just a wake-up call for all tea drinkers, but a battle cry for safe food advocates.

This action overrides the EPA’s 2010 ban on the use of endosuflan in the US (2) and the 2011 revoking of all tolerances of endosulfan, meaning a ban on teas from China and any other import that shows traces of the insecticide.

Ban on Endosulfan

Non-organic teas from china are grown using these toxic insecticides, as are the majority of crops in India, South America and other countries outside the US and Europe.

In fact, endosulfan, like its cousin DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane ) is a known carcinogen. In the mid-1990s, endosulfan and several other pesticides were found in coffee beans imported from Columbia. Green coffee beans especially were laden with these pesticides.

The WTO reported that “over 100 human poisonings per year were reported in the 1994-1995 production period due to the use of the pesticide endosulfan in coffee.” (3)

This isn’t the first time that an insecticide has been banned in the US, but allowed to be used in or sold to other countries only to import the food grown with the pesticide into America.

When DDT was outlawed in the US for crop growing in 1972, the pesticide was still being exported to South America where it was used on banana and coffee bean farms.

The sadistic irony was lost on unsuspecting US citizens who munched down on DDT riddled bananas imported from South America. In fact, today’s bananas, according to Raw Food Explained are found to contain, “45 ‘allowable’ (by FDA standards) pesticides plus 25 prohibited pesticides and 37 additional poisons that are not normally detected by FDA tests”. (4)

Tea is not an exception, but it has been spotlighted recently in the wake of the EPA’s change on its original ban mandate.

chinese tea

EPA Changes Its Tune

In May 2011, after the Stockholm Convention listed endosulfan as a banned substance on the 2009 recommendation for a global action against toxic insecticides by the POPRC (Persistent Organic Pollutants Review Committee), the EPA revoked “all tolerances for endosulfan, as, ‘It can pose unacceptable health risks to farm workers and wildlife and can persist in the environment’.” (1)

The EPA announced in February 2012 that it would continue to allow these teas containing cancer-causing endosulfan to be imported into the US. The EPA stipulated that the toxic teas can be imported up until July 31, 2016.

What happens in the course of those four years before endosulfan can no longer be used on imported teas? That is a huge health concern not only for consumers, but also for those working on the tea farms.

First of all, the EPA’s ban of endosulfan wasn’t a targeted response to Chinese tea. In fact, the EPA wasn’t even aware that China’s tea was grown using endosulfan until the Chamber of Commerce of the Zhejiang International Tea Industry made an official complaint that the “EPA failed to follow established procedures for providing notice of such proposed actions under the World Trade Organization (WTO)”.

This breech in protocol meant that the chamber didn’t have the opportunity to comment on the proposed EPA rule. (5)

This failure on the part of the EPA forced the agency to revisit its earlier pronounced ban. The Chamber further contended that tea farms would need a transition period of “five years or less to find feasible alternatives to endosulfan”. (6)

While the EPA stated that it stands behind the ban of endosulfan as an “appropriate” action, it still granted the Chinese tea growers a four-year extension. What are the tolerance levels that the EPA is allowing until July 31, 2016? 24 parts per million (ppm) residues of endosulfan.

The CDC (Center for Disease Control) states:

“The EPA has established a tolerance limit of 24 ppm for endosulfan residues in or on dried tea. When endosulfan is applied to growing tea this limit reflects a residue level of 0.1 ppm in beverage tea (EPA 1988d)”. (7)

The percentage of pesticide residue equates to 0.00001. (8)

Regardless of tolerance levels, like all insecticides, endosulfan is a poison. Most people agree that poisons should not be added to food, yet the majority of foods sold in the US are laced with poisonous insecticides and herbicides, both domestic and imported.

This type of poisoning is rarely considered when a patient complains of headaches, flu symptoms and other insecticide poisoning side-effects. In fact, you may have believed you were suffering from food poisoning or a stomach virus when in fact you were the victim of endosulfan poisoning.

tea bag

Symptoms of Endosulfan Poisoning

The symptoms of endosulfan poisoning are very similar to stomach viruses, such as:

–> Headache
–> Nausea
–> Vomiting
–> Convulsions

In severe cases, symptoms can include unconsciousness and eventual death. So, maybe it was that broccoli in your salad or Mexican strawberries that was the actual culprit for your upset stomach and not the day you spent at the zoo surrounded by pre-schoolers.

Endosulfan has been linked to abnormal development of testicles, low sperm count, miscarriages and even autism. Beyond human victims, the environment is severely impacted by the runoff of farms doused in endosulfan. Besides amphibians and other aquatic life, this pesticide is not insect discriminating and kills or damages beneficial insects.

The CDC reports that:

“In terms of toxicity, NIOSH (Nation Institute of Occupational Safety and Health) recommends that endosulfan be recognized as a Group 1 Pesticide (NIOSH 1992). Pesticides in Group 1 pose a significant risk of adverse acute health effects at low concentration or carcinogenic, teratogenic, neurotoxic, or reproductive effects (NIOSH 1992).” (7)

The countries that use endosulfan in agriculture view this ban as a political move and not one born out of health and environmental concerns. These countries have their own endosulfan manufacturers since the insecticide is not patented and is very cheap to manufacture. Anyone can produce the chemical and sell it. This economic plus is one reason why it’s so commonly used by China, India, Brazil and other countries.

In a December, 2010 report on endosulfan, Indlaw, a website guide for India’s legal system, the headline read, “Ban on ‘Endosulfan’ aimed at destroying India’s exports”.

The report stated that India and China along with other countries had strongly opposed the WTO’s 2010 recommendation to ban endosulfan.

“The industry was of the view that arguments put forward by an international committee for imposing the ban was not based on scientific evidence, but by the brute display of voting power by the members”. (9)

Yet, scientific reports such as the one published from the University of Pittsburgh in April, 2009, “Very Highly Toxic Effects of Endosulfan Across Nine Species of Tadpoles: Lag Effects and Family-Level Sensitivity” concluded that:

“Endosulfan can cause high levels of mortality in amphibian larvae…are able to quantify a strong lag effect of endosulfan exposure across several species of amphibians.” (10)

Lag time is defined as, “an interval of time between two related phenomena (as a cause and its effect)” (11)

herbal tea

Questioning the Morality of EPA’s Decision

Tea from China is just one of many such instances of harmful chemicals being used in the creation of food crops.

Many environmental and food safety activists question the morality of the EPA’s decision for a four-year transition period from the use of endosulfan on produce imported into the US.

One of the most frequently asked questions is: “How can a decision that knowingly exposes human beings to cancer causing insecticides be allowed?”

In addition to the tea controversy, the EPA has, according to Beyond Pesticides, “…allowed the use of endosulfan to be extended till mid-2016 for use in livestock ear tags, pineapples, strawberries, and vegetable crops for seed such as broccoli and kale”. (1)

Most people would agree that poisoning the public for any reason, but especially out of economic and legal concerns is morally wrong.

Beyond Pesticides advises, “Submit your comments to the federal docket (the best way to get your voice heard) using docket number EPA-HQ-OPP-2011-0104 at” (1)

Buying organic tea is an alternative for those concerned about health risks associated with drinking endosulfan laden tea. Most tea varieties are available through reputable organic growers that display the certified organic label. Educating yourself on tea growers is empowering and will provide you with greater control over what’s really brewing in your tea kettle.

References & Image Credits:
(1) Beyond Pesticides
(2) EPA
(3) WTO
(4) Raw Food Explained
(5) US Government Printing Office
(6) EPA
(7) CDC
(8) The Merck Veterinary Manual
(9) India Law
(10) NCSU
(11) Merriam Webster
(12) Auntie P via photopin cc
(13) Chiara Musiu via photopin cc
(14) andreasmarx via photopin cc
(15) webgrl via photopin cc

Originally published on

  • Guest

    Tea leaves also absorbs radiation (radiation that came from atomic testing, nuclear meltdowns, and nuclear power plants.)
    Along with mushrooms, tea absorbs the most radiation.
    Radiation is a carcinogen.
    A forum on E N E N E W S (dot) com has more information on this.

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Mark R. Whittington, from Houston, Texas, frequently writes on space, science, political commentary and political culture.

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