(Beyond Pesticides, August 14, 2014) Pesticides are not the first thing to pop into mind when peering into a hot mug of steaming, pale green or murky black tea first thing in the morning. A recent report published by Greenpeace India announced the results of an investigation that tested for pesticide residues in branded tea. The verdict? Nearly 94% of the tea samples tested contained at least one of 34 different pesticides, while over half contained a toxic cocktail of more than 10 different pesticides. The residues found include DDT, which was banned for use in agriculture in India since 1989, and endosulfan, which was banned in 2011 by the Indian Supreme Court. Over half of the 49 samples contained illegal pesticides — either those that are not approved for use in tea cultivation or exceeded recommended limits.
These pesticides include ones that have been long banned from agriculture and use in tea cultivation (DDT and triazophos), suspected mutagens and neurotoxicants (monocrotophos), and insecticides associated with the global decline in bee populations (neonicotinoids like thiacloprid and thiamethoxam). The most frequently detected pesticides include thiamethoxam (78%), cypermethrin (73%), acetamiprid (67%), thiacloprid (67%), DDT (67%), deltamethrin (67%), dicofol (61%), imidacloprid (61%), and monocrotophos (55%).
Approximately 60%, or 29 of the 49, of the samples contained at least one pesticide residue above the Maximum Residue Levels (MRL) set by the European Union (EU), while 37% of the samples exceeded these levels by more than 50%. One sample was tainted with tebufenpyrad at over 10 times the MRL. Tebufenpyrad, a pyrazole miticides/insecticide, does not appear to have been registered for use in India. Other unapproved pesticides found include monocrotophos, classified by the World Health Organization (WHO) as a Class lb (highly hazardous) pesticide; the pesticide has not been registered for use on tea at the government level due to its WHO designation. Methamidophos, found in two samples, is another WHO Class Ib pesticide and is not registered in India for any use; its parent compound, acephate, is not approved for use on tea crops, either. Triazophos is also a WHO Class Ib pesticide that is not approved for use on tea in India, although it is registered. The organophosphate was found in five samples with levels exceeding MRLs.
Other pesticides of concern include neonicotinoid insecticides, which are associated with pollinator decline. Of the ones detected in the samples, only thiacloprid and thiamethoxam are registered for use on tea. However, acetamiprid, which was found in 67% of samples, in many cases exceeding its MRL values, suggests that the unapproved use of this chemical in tea cultivation may be extensive. Imidacloprid is another neonicotinoid that has not been approved for use in tea cultivation, yet was found in 61% of samples.
A total of 49 branded and packaged teas were sampled from retail outlets in four major Indian cities (Mumbai, Bangalore, Delhi, and Kolkata) and were tested for the presence of over 350 different pesticides. The samples come from eight out of the top 11 companies that make up a large part of the tea market in India, including Hindustan Unilever Limited, a subsidiary of the global multinational company Unilever, and Tata Global Beverages Limited. Popular brands included in the study Twinings and Lipton.
As the second largest tea producer after China and the fourth largest exporter of tea globally, these results have far-reaching implications, one of them being that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has the authority to allow residues of banned pesticides on food products from other countries. In 2013, EPA made the decision to allow residues of endosulfan on imported Chinese teas until July 31, 2016. Its decision to provide “additional time to transition to an alternative to endosulfan” raises serious concerns of further exposure to the toxic carcinogen for farmworkers and consumers. In May 2011, endosulfan was added to the Stockholm Convention’s list of banned substances, and almost 80 countries have banned the pesticide in recognition of its impacts to human health and the environment.
Despite also being banned for production, use, and sale throughout India following a 2011 Supreme Court decision (although still registered for use by the Central Insecticides Board and Registration Committee (CIBRC)), endosulfan was found in about 8% of tea samples in the Greenpeace investigation.
Additional concerns brought up by the report include the effects of these pesticides on pesticide applicators and other workers, non-target organisms, the pesticide treadmill, and on water and soil quality.
To ensure that the tea you’re drinking is not contaminated with endosulfan or other pesticides, consumers should protect themselves by purchasing USDA Organic Certified products when possible. Beyond Pesticides encourages people, through Eating with a Conscience, to choose organic because of the environmental and health benefits to consumers, workers, and rural families. The Eating with a Conscience database, based on legal tolerances (or allowable residues on food commodities), describes a chemical-intensive food production system that enables toxic pesticide use both domestically and internationally, and provides a look at the toxic chemicals allowed in the production of the food we eat and the environmental and public health effects resulting from their use. For more information on the benefits of organic agriculture, see Beyond Pesticides’ Organic Food program page.
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.