Tea and Pollution

So, I had a tea party recently: all men (Yes, Virginia, they do exist). Amidst all of the fun we had exploring all of the subtle nuances of three different Oolongs—all grown and harvested, in China—one astute friend, whom had recently traveled to China, asked me if pollution can get into the tea. Before I write on, I want to state for the record that I judge the US clearly has many polluted cities (having been to many of them, and living in one of them). It just so happens that my friend visited China recently, and said he was surprised at the level of pollution in the cities there. So, keeping in mind that China and the US are not the only countries on the planet to have polluted cities, it seems to me a very valid question to ask: How does the pollution in China affect the tea we drink? I think he was primarily thinking of the polluted air, but of course polluted water, and other things, may affect it too.

My understanding is that tea mostly grows in provinces within the eastern and southern parts of China. And that is where I believe most of the population, and consequently, most of the pollution, resides. I told him that I have NEVER read (or heard) how pollution affects tea, if it does at all. Consequently, I told him that I would present this question to the Steepester community. So, here I am; presenting it, that is.

Here are some questions I have that may help steer us to a meaningful answer: does the elevation of the tea plantation affect it (does polluted air seem to settle at a certain elevation)? Are there particular particles that are present in some types of pollution, but not in others, that is more of concern, or is it any and all pollution? If it does affect the tea, then how so? And, finally, what if anything, can be done about it?

He is concerned, and after he brought it up, other men present also voiced their concern (myself included). My guess is we are not alone. I think anyone involved with the tea—from the growing to the drinking of it— would want to at least get some clarity on this issue.

Towards the end of getting an answer, I did a brief search of the web, and these are a few articles that seem to at least address the question:

Wow, some of what I read in that article is a darn good reason to rinse the tea before brewing (and I thought it was only Pu-erhs and oolongs that you should rinse!). I don’t want to copy part of the article, so I invite you to read the article and search on, ‘And I would also add this little-known fact:’ and read the fascinating tidbit about rinsing.

This is another interesting article: http://www.sierraclubgreenhome.com/featured/pollution-absorbing-tea-anyone-coca-cola-is-serving/

And another: http://www.sierraclubgreenhome.com/featured/pollution-absorbing-tea-anyone-coca-cola-is-serving/

Hopefully they are a good starting part for this conversation. Would you like to join it?

32 Replies
Will said

I was just going to link to the Chadao post you referenced. It’s definitely something to consider, though given all the bad stuff we’re exposed to in the course of everyday life, I think it’s probably not the biggest concern, depending on how much tea you drink. I have been to some tea growing areas in China, and while they are often pretty remote, and in apparently clean surroundings, they’re still probably affected by pollution generated elsewhere to some degree or another.

You should also have a read of this post in the same series:

I do usually rinse my tea, but I am not really convinced that rinsing tea will have a significant effect in terms of reducing pesticide residues. Of course, there are different types of pesticides (some more harmful than the other), and farmers may apply them more or less liberally, and the tea may or may not be rinsed before processing. All of these things may have some effect on how much (if any) pesticide residue ends up in the tea.

There are some tell-tale signs that a tea may have been produced with minimal or no pesticides — I always consider bug bites on the tea to be a good sign. Some people also claim to be able to tell whether chemical fertilizers were used by the appearance of the wet leaf.

Thank you for your reply.

I was hoping to get a response from someone who had actually been to a tea growing area. I’m glad to hear that the one(s) you saw were clean. Yet, as you mention, I think my friends concern (and mine too) regards the ‘if and how’ air pollution from the larger more industrial areas (which clearly ‘moves around,’ or whatever the proper atmospheric term is) affects the tea (during the growing and processing of it).

I think I may start rinsing all of my tea (I think I will try a cold rinse as the author of the article suggests).

Looking for bug bites; very interesting. I can do detail, so that concept appeals to me.

I’ll be reading that other article you referenced, too.

btw, I just checked out your (?) website, Teadrunk.org, and it looks like there are some very interesting conversations there.

Thank you for your valued input!

I actually have been to a couple of tea growing areas as well. While I was not overly close to the direct locations where the tea was grown, I can tell you that in my own observation, much of the actual tea growing is done with at least a decent distance from the larger cities. Obviously, this isn’t exclusively true, but from what I noticed, it seemed that tea-producing areas were somewhat less worrisome to me than other areas. On the other hand, there are the tea factories which will produce certain amounts of pollution, but in the relative scheme of things, the observable pollution appeared somewhat less in the tea-producing areas I was around.

I am far from an authority and I’ll admit I wasn’t thinking about it at the time. So take it all with a grain of salt!

Dinahsaur: Thank you for your reply.

I really appreciate hearing first hand accounts.

From what little I have read (from the articles mentioned above) I gather that at least some tea producing areas make it a priority to keep things looking clean. That, in itself is heartening to read about. Still, It’s the air pollution that I am most concerned about (the one component of pollution that seems the most difficult to measure). So, for example, how far from any air polluting ‘structure’ or whatever, do the tea plantations have to be to be at a ‘safe’ distance? Do things like being ‘up wind’ or ‘down wind’ from the polluting structures matter? Does the elevation of the tea garden matter? The more I read and hear about the absence or presence of pollution in tea producing countries, the more these targeted questions begin to emerge in my mind.

Still, the more of us that have actually seen tea gardens and can give reports of what they have seen, the better. If anything, a vague sketch of the reality of pollution as it stands in tea producing countries is starting to form in my mind, and no matter what form it ends up taking on, the fact that there is something forming makes me feel at least a little better about the tea I buy.

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very informative!! thanks for illuminating the issue SimpliciTea.
I suppose “organic” tea is moot if the source of water it takes from is polluted.
Oh and my colleague mentioned today that her naturopath recommends drinking only Japanese green teas because ALL other tea is filled with terrible stuff from either pollution or pesticides or worse (sewage runoff for example)
I’ve also heard that the FDA allows a micro percentage of urea and feces in tea bags. Loose tea, not being monitored so closely, likely has even more. Makes you stop and think…
Not that any of this could ever get me to stop drinking TEA!!! :)

Wow, lots of interesting things you heard. While I am always skeptical of blanket sentiments like, “… drinking only Japanese green teas because ALL other tea is filled with terrible stuff …”, it may very well be that Japanese standards are stricter than those in China (if so, I could speculate on a few reasons why). Still, I’d have to have lots of real data to back up that claim before I took it seriously. And even then I’d still make my judgments on a farmer-by-farmer basis, because from what I have read standards across farms vary dramatically.

Yeah, I too wondered if this was an organic related question, but I don’t think it really is. It all depends on how ‘organic’ is defined. Sure, its possible that practically all of the soil and water is free of unwanted particles, but what about the air? Still, it’s a good question: do some organic definitions include the quality of the air the product is grown in?

Your replies always make me smile, or laugh. That last statement of yours makes me smile. Although this is an interesting topic, it’s true for me too: there would have to be some fairly substantial evidence of pretty dramatic consequences for drinking all the tea in China for me to stop drinking it!

eh… whats wrong with a little chemicals in tea? It gives just an extra kick to it! lol

I’ve heard the FDA stuff from Mum. She works for the government, in customs so she hears things. and then spouts them off to me. Incessantly.
Anyhow, I know its all hearsay… and I do agree, it should be judged on a farmer by farmer basis. Except there really is no reliable way of obtaining this info short of traveling there myself. (one day!)
and hey, you always have such well thought out questions and answers! You know I’m chuckling a little now… We make quite a pair you and I, ST :)

Yes, we do! And thanks for the compliment.

Too bad your mom fills your ear with lots of stuff it sounds like you don’t want to hear. Parents! : p

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FDA allows a micro percentage of urea and feces in tea bags” – Whoever told you this doesn’t know what they are talking about. This statement is not scientific at all. Urea is a highly volatile chemical commonly found in fertilizers, including natural, organic fertilizers. Because it’s highly volatile, even if it can somehow reach tea leaves, it’s not likely to stay on tea leaves till the time of inspection.

Feces is a mixture, not a chemical. There is no way to officially examine trace/micro amount of a mixture like feces. Feces may cause E. coli (or other bacterial) contamination, which is often a concern for fresh vegetables and fruits. But barely any bacteria are active in dry environment like on dry tea leaves.

Not that tea pollution is not a concern. But non-scientific assertions only make things worse.

What you say here seems sound to me.

Thank you, Gingko, for your reply. I really appreciate hearing from someone like you who really understands what is being talked about.

Ha, I knew it!! now if only I had documented, gov’t sanctioned proof to show mum… then I could finally drink a cup in peace :)

Will said

It is true that FDA standards permit certain levels of rodent excrement, rodent hair, fly eggs, etc. in certain foods.


However, I don’t see any mention of tea on this page.

If eating rodent s**t is something you want to avoid, better stop eating flour, peanut butter, etc.

Will: apparently Mum’s had a tour of the facilities, and has “seen it herself” so who knows what she is referring to… but to be honest as long as I don’t see any of the nasty stuff mentioned in your post above, does it really matter? we’d eat far more bacteria if we prepared all of the food from scratch ourselves!

A few of my descriptions may be a little ‘gross’, so consider yourself forewarned!

Both of your posts bring up an important distinction for me in this issue. To me, there is a difference between, what I will call ‘gross’, and what I think of as poisonous.

I personally don’t get easily grossed out. To help illustrate what I mean, I would like to share with you a hopefully interesting and at least marginally relevant and yet very brief side story: At that very same aforementioned tea party, while we were discussing how Oriental Beauty gets its unique flavoring (hoppers munching on the leaves), the host brought down some pre-packaged edible crickets he had previously bought. You may have heard of them? These particular ones were cheddar and bacon flavored. So, needless to say, I ate one. And, you know? It wasn’t bad at all. : )

As other examples: I will drink milk a little past its expiration date (you know how there’s the white stuff that floats on top, then a few days later it turns yellow, then it starts to get, well, maybe I better stop there before I get a little too descriptive? Suffice it to say, I stop drinking it when I see the yellow). I will eat just about anything past its prime: it may look discolored, it may even be a little slimy, but as long as it still tastes good I’ll still eat it; I am only momentarily bothered by hair in my food (“Hmmmm, what’s this?”); the list goes on. To my knowledge, at least, I have yet to get sick as a consequence of my choices, and I am still standing strong, and tall! (I don’t know, it’s also possible I have a strong constitution).

Now, I would never eat those things had I known for certain they would make me sick—not as in,“eeew, it’s gross, I can’t believe I just ate that!” which I judge is a purely mental attitude. I am talking about a virus, or bacteria, or something that will make me sick without me even knowing about it. That it was I call poison. It’s caused by something biological, not mental.

So tea—or any food, for that matter—that may have minute traces of some ‘gross’ debris just doesn’t bother me. BUT, I don’t want to unnecessarily and unknowingly expose myself to things that are known to cause sickness in humans. I mean, I judge that’s the whole issue of pollution, anyway. Here’s a link to one definition of pollution: http://www.thefreedictionary.com/pollution, which uses words like contamination, harmful, poisonous. If the tea I drink is contaminated, or poisonous, or otherwise harmful to my system, well then, I want to know about it!

Almost missed the links from Will. Those are interesting links and I didn’t think much about those things! Maybe what Indigobloom’s mom mentioned was something like herbal teabags made by minced sage (mentioned in one of the links Will posted). I guess if it’s allowed, it’s probably because it existed from the original agricultural production. But it does sound a little gross!

On the other hand, what’s gross and what’s not, could be different if seen from different angles. There are things that look perfectly clean but totally gross. There were a couple of years when my husband laughed at me for insisting on buying organic milk. I believed BGH (bovine growth hormone) was bad, didn’t know much about it but just thought it was bad. My husband thought I was just paranoid, and I couldn’t convince him. Then we saw the Canadian award-winning documentary The Corporation, which has a big section talking about BGH. My husband was instantly convinced, and ever since then, has been on my side for organic milk. BGH-added milk is not instantly dangerous, and is very sanitary. But in some sense, it’s not less gross than many obviously gross things.

I’m one of those you’re-going-to have-to-show-me kind of people, so I can relate to your husband’s position.

I’ll have to keep my eye out for that video.

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SimpliciTEA, thank you for your kind comments :-)

Indigobloom, maybe the person who told your mom this meant to talk about some other FDA standards for tea but misinterpreted the information?

I can only hope Gingko, but since I don’t know who told her…
ah well. It won’t be long before I move out :)

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Excelsior said

I was on the fence about writing a reply to the post because I have mostly negative things to say. But here it goes.

I’ve been to a tea plantation and have traveled to China countless times. What I will say is the tea plantation was clean, the tea they produced was of good quality, and while the plantation was about a two hour drive from Shanghai, the air quality was very good compared to the air pollution always present in the industrial areas of China.

However, I stopped buying Chinese tea about 10 years ago. I’ve seen, heard, experienced too many things in China. Cooking oil from filtered sewage water. Fake eggs, melanine in milk kiling 6 and making 300,000 babies sick. Pet food killing thousands of cats and dogs in the US. Fake eggs and fake salt. The salt was made from waste/debris from a pesticide chemical plant. 14,000 TONS of this toxic salt was sold to restaurants, street vendors, consumers in China. Each time I go, members from our group get food poisoning. Each time I go, I get sick.

The Chinese tea from reputable retailers are probably of good quality and would most likely not have any harmful additives. Yet after we got sick from the bacon we ate at a 5 star hotel in Shanghai, I have lost confidence in all consumable products from China. The tap water in Shanghai is undrinkable. Fill a bath tub with hot water and you’ll often get particles in the water turning it brown murky color. Is lead present in the water? Sometimes. Is the water chlorinated? Yes, sometimes with massive amounts of chemicals. What about the water they use or the pesticides they use for the tea plantations? I have no idea.

I now buy all of my Oolong teas from a small shop in Taipei, Taiwan.

This is my opinion and the choice I have made based on my trips to China. For work, I have to travel throughout China 3 times a year. From Beijing and Tianjin in the northern part of China, to Shanghai in the central part of China, and Guangzhou and Shenzhen in the southern part of China.

I’m so jealous about your job! :-)

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Wow. Excelsior thank you for your reply. I appreciate your objectivity, and all the details you gave; some are hard realities, and still, I am glad to read that you found the air quality in the tea plantations to be much better as compared to the industrial areas of China. It’s sad to read about all of your experiences with food poisoning.

At the risk of being judged that I am defending China, I will say that I feel I am responsible for at least some of the things you mention in your post. I believe how I spend my money and conduct myself as I encounter others in the world around me, has, in an obscure way, an affect on those outcomes (I think Anthony Basic mentioned something like this in one of his posts, and possible others have, too). Being from the US, and therefore a ‘Westerner’, through my actions I also feel responsible for, if anything, condoning the mindset that it’s OK to make a buck without too much thought (if any) given towards its affect on the world around me (and those who inhabit it).

OK, admittedly I’m getting a little philosophical here, but I’m finding that ‘progress’, defined in the West (in my understanding, at least) largely as ‘growing the economy’, comes with a price higher than I want to pay (oftentimes, the price is much higher). That’s why I am attempting to educate myself about things that have a larger impact on our planet and those who inhabit it.

That’s brings me back to the purpose of this discussion in the first place, started in a sense out my friend’s desire to understand how pollution affects the tea we drink, and so, that wonderful body that is an integral part of who we are. At least we are talking about things that matter to us. And, maybe, together, we can piece together some kind of road-map for a better solution. (erm, that doesn’t sound too much like a politician, does it?)

Excelsior, I am glad you stepped into this conversation (even if only briefly)! : – )

Missy said

I always enjoy your discussions. They provoke thought.
That politician crack is very amusing.

I’m glad you enjoy the discussions, and that they provoke thought for you, as that is part of my goal. : )

I am also glad you found my politician comment amusing; that was in reference to one’s choice to use language that sounds good, but doesn’t necessarily take a stand or mean anything. I admit I am sometimes guilty of that. : p

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Thank you to all that contributed to this topic of conversation.

I am glad this thread re-surfaced, as I was thinking about this topic very recently, and I want to ‘report’ back to my friend who originally asked the question (he asked me this not long after visiting China as he said he was shocked at the level of pollution he saw while visiting a large city there). It was especially good to hear from those of you whom had traveled to China. From what all of you have shared, I gather that those in China whom are involved with the growing and processing of Tea in any way (or the locals that have a stake in Tea for one reason or another) do what they can to make certain the area within and surrounding the location where the tea is harvest is a clean as possible. That makes me feel, somehow, connected to them, and grateful.

However, I think the bigger issue centers around things that may be largely beyond the control of the local peoples; I am thinking of things like air and water pollution. I’m not a geologist, or ecologist, or meteorologist, but it seems to me if the water and air coming from the large cities is grossly polluted (‘grossly’ is a judgment of the amount of pollution, not a fact about it), some of it must be making its way to the nearby tea gardens (even if the gardens are many tens of kilometers away). If that’s the case (and I’m not saying it is) then the question is how much of the polluted air and water is making it to the tea gardens, and likewise to the tea bushes themselves. And THEN, even if it’s a lot, the question becomes, how does that ultimately impact the Tea that I am drinking? (There are a number of related questions, like, how does this impact gardens considered as ‘organic’) As many things are, it’s complex, and it seems there are no easy answers. At least if it’s of interest to some of us, there is still Hope.

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TeaVivre said

The tea produced in high mountains can get rid of the pollution. Now in China more and more people pay attention to good environment to produce tea. More and more organic tea gardens can be seen in now.

Look at this article about an organic tea garden:

“The tea produced in high mountains can get rid of the pollution.” I’d be willing to believe this, but do you have any scientific data to back it up?

As you say, and from what I have heard, I believe those in China are doing what they can towards implementing environmentally friendly practices as regards to Tea.

Those pictures are fantastic! Seeing is believing (well, not totally, but still …).

Love it , love it, LOVE IT!

I loved it so much I showed my wife the pictures (she’s not as into Tea as I am, but she still appreciates pictures, too).

I love how the images help connect me to what ‘organic’ actually means, or, how organic farming is actually ‘implemented’ (as with those wasp traps).

I appreciate that you included a picture of all of you at TeaVivre, too. It always helps me to be able to put faces to names.

Thank you so much for taking the time and effort to take and post the pictures to help connect us with the Tea! This says so much about your business, your passion around tea, and about your dedication to providing those Tea Enthusiasts like me with all those wonderful details.

I am looking forward to seeing what 2012 spring green teas you will have available this late spring/summer!

I think it’s generally safe to assume high mountain teas are less likely to be contaminated than lower elevation ones (and of course there are always other factors involved).

The leading sources of contamination of tea (and many other agriculture products) are heavy metal and pesticide. Former is usually more severe because most of the pesticides, especially the legitimate ones, degrade with time being, but the former one is hard to get rid of.

The heavy metal contamination is mainly from road side deposit caused by passing traffic of automobiles. Most high mountain tea plantations cannot be accessed by automobiles, not even motorcycles. Even for low mountain tea, the good ones are never next to the road side. And unfortunately, the road side ones are more likely to go to teabags or other industrial uses such as tea to be extracted for bottled beverages. But if a tea is contaminated by heavy metal, it may not pass the test to be qualified for any food industry anyway, so there is weak incentive for people to keep road side fields for tea instead of for things like economic wood production.

High mountain tea plantations are generally less exposed to pesticides too because it’s simply expensive to carry things up there. Agriculture in China is not very “advanced” yet and spray of pesticides by airplane or other mechanical methods are not affordable for most farmers. (However Monsanto is working hard now to “help” to “advance” agricultural technology in China. That always disturbs my mind…) If one has to carry everything up to the mountain on his own back, he has to think hard about how to minimize the load. In low mountain fields, it would be easier to carry around pesticides so there is weaker incentive to minimize it. Besides, high mountain areas generally have better ecosystem and less likely to suffer from as many pests as typical agricultural fields.

I’m not a big fan of those chemical giants either. I guess I don’t trust their motives, as its hard to for me to place much trust in a company that is driven mainly by profit. Ah, the nature of a stock market economy (and investors clamoring for the highest returns). I can’t help but like the little guy (or girl as the case may be). : )

Good points about the autos and the difficulty in getting pesticides ‘up the mountain’. That helps. : )

Still, I wonder where airborne pollution tends to ‘settle’; not just the stuff coming out of cars, but the more industrial stuff coming out of smokestacks and the like. I have lived in areas where I could literally see the band of pollution (at least, that is what I was told it was). One region had little, to no, wind; during the winter that band (which was very colorful at sunrise and sunset) was called ‘ice fog’. The elevation where I could see this ice fog was not very high up (probably easily under 500 meters, as there were no real mountains nearby). Still, I would think a little wind could easily carry the particles up to much higher elevations. Anyway, just some thoughts that came up for me.

I guess it may depend on which specific pollutant it is. Currently some most commonly seen industrial pollutants include carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide. The first two haven’t been proven as harmful to plants as to humans, and they could enter the carbon and nitrogen cycles of plants and therefore be “consumed". The third can be “consumed” by some plants too and is probably more harmful to plants than the first two, depending on the amount. Acid rain is probably more harmful to plants than the above three, but the concern is more of getting the plants killed instead of affecting the quality of the product. Generally speaking the pollutants that have simple chemical composition and can be processed by plants may not be of the largest concern for the final products. But those that accumulate on the surface (such as heavy metal or toxic pesticide) could be more dangerous.

But overall, if the ecosystem is damaged, there could be a lot of chains effect, including deterioration of soil quality, increasing incidence of natural disaster and increasing demand of pesticides. And all of these could potentially affect tea.

Thanks of the mini-lesson. You clearly know more about pollution than I do.

Reading you reply helped me to see that I may be focusing too much on the short term problems pollution may be causing (to the tea leaves themselves), such that I am loosing sight of the long term ones (like “including deterioration of soil quality, increasing incidence of natural disaster and increasing demand of pesticides”). This conversation is good, though, as it keeps me thinking!

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I also want to mention that I don’t believe rinsing the tea would help “clean” it. If a tea is of safety/sanitary concern, rinsing with hot water is pretty much just “mental comfort” instead of a practical solution. The “rinse” of oolong, I believe, is mainly for better infusion instead of safety concern. So I feel, puerh excluded, people should only drink a tea if they feel safe to drink it without any rinse. And if a tea doesn’t feel safe, rinse won’t help, and boiling will make it lose flavor, so basically nothing can be done on it to make it drinkable :-p

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