Why Starting The Day With A Warm Cup Of Tea Could Be Hazardous To Your Health

Posted on September 4, 2014 in Health and Life

By Kanika Katyal:

In India, tea is not just a beverage. A sip of warm tea takes you on a trip down the Indian way of life. The numerous tea commercials time and again confer tea as the epitome of Indian hospitality. From Kashmiri ‘kahwa’ to ‘masala chai’ in Kerala; from Gujarat’s milky tea to Bombay’s ‘cutting chai’; from the tea brewed with ginger and bay leaves in Assam to the elegant Darjeeling tea, and to the health conscious’ green tea; it is a brew that transcends regional, linguistic, religious and class divides to become nothing short of a national drink. Thus, the importance of tea drinking in India cannot be confined to words.

clean chai

Breaking News: Your morning cup of Darjeeling tea could be lemon or honey flavoured. It could also be pesticide flavoured.

An investigation carried out by environmental NGO Greenpeace India titledTrouble Brewing has found residues of hazardous chemical pesticides in a majority of samples of the popular brands of packaged tea produced and consumed in India. Over half of the samples contained pesticides that are ‘unapproved’ for use in tea cultivation or which were present in excess of recommended limits. A number of these pesticides have been classified both as highly hazardous and moderately hazardous by the World Health Organization (WHO).

“We had carried out a study across many cities in India over the past one year to check the quality of tea leaves sold in cities. Our study has revealed the presence of residues of chemical pesticides in a majority of brands,” Neha Sehgal, senior campaigner of Greenpeace told reporters in Mumbai.

She claimed that out of 49 samples tested by the non-profit organisation, around 34 (94%) contained residues of at least one pesticide and 29 (59%) of the samples contained a cocktail of more than 10 different pesticides in them. Also 29 (59%) of the samples contained residues of at least one pesticide above the maximum residue limits set by the European Union (EU).

For the study, samples had been collected from different retailers from cities like Delhi, Kolkata, Bangalore and Mumbai over a period from June 2013 to May 2014.These included well-known brands of Hindustan Unilever Limited, Tata Global Beverages Limited, Wagh Bakri Tea, Goodricke Tea, Twinings, Golden Tips, Kho-Cha and Girnar.

Every tea lover needs to watch this video by Greenpeace. 11 August 2014: Greenpeace Activists took over billboards in Mumbai for over 50 hours to demand that the country’s drink – CHAI – be pesticide-free.

“Don’t say No to Chai, say yes to #CleanChai”

Key Concerns of the Campaign

– Firstly, the use of such a wide range of pesticides raises significant questions about safety for pesticide applicators and other workers in tea cultivation, and the possible impacts upon their health, as well as impacts on non-target organisms, on water and soil quality.

– Secondly, the “cocktail effect” of pesticides is thus a severe concern, and creates considerable regulatory challenges.

– Finally, many of the pesticides detected in the samples are not permitted for use on tea in India, raising questions about their origin in the samples and the legality of their use in tea cultivation.


Pesticides have a chain of impact on human health and environment, right from the exposure to tea gardeners to the consumption by consumers. Sehgal said that there was a presence of the toxic DDT (dichlorodiphenyl trichloroethane) in 67% of the tea samples.“Use of DDT has been banned in India since 1989.”

Monocrotophos, termed as hazardous by the WHO, was found in 27 samples. Tebufenpyrad, a pesticide not registered in India and thus illegal, was found in one sample. “It can be very toxic for the liver,” she said.

Effects Of Pesticides On Humans

– Asthma
– Birth Defects
– Neurological Effects
– Cancer
– Hormone Disruptions
– Skin allergies

Effects Of Pesticides On Wildlife And Environment

– Chronic poisoning can sicken Wildlife.
– Acute Poisoning can be lethal.
– Adverse effects on reproduction cycles( especially in the case of birds).
– Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) characterized by the loss of bees, affects plant pollination and cardinally, the environment.
– Loss of natural nutrients from the soil, making it unfit for cultivation.


Cocktail Effects Of Pesticide Mixtures

A major peculiarity that the Greenpeace survey threw light upon was the “cocktail effect” of pesticides. The regulation and permitting of pesticides is generally focussed on individual active substances and their toxic effects. As a result, the effects of toxicant mixtures, which are equally hazardous, are neglected. Greenpeace points out evidences that show how the components of a mixture of chemicals may be capable of interacting in a co-active manner.

Tea Industry in India and the Pesticide Trap

Today, India is the second largest tea producer in the world after China, and one of the largest consumers with over 70% of the tea being consumed within India itself. A number of renowned teas, such as Assam and Darjeeling, also grow exclusively in India. The tea industry in India is now over 175 years old, with the total area under tea cultivation around 9.8 lakh or nearly 1 million hectares.

Despite the importance of tea cultivation to the Indian economy, the sector has recently been facing a range of problems.

Pesticides: A Vicious Cycle

The farmers spray pesticides for higher production. They are aware of the dangers of pesticides, but they have no choice. The main aim is to produce a good quantity.

Harish C Mukhia, a consultant for the Specialised Agricultural and Industrial Consultancy on Tea and manager for six organic tea gardens, says , “Plenty of herbicides and pesticides are used on steep slopes to control weeds and pests. This greatly degrades the soil, leaving it barren.”

About 60 per cent of the bushes in Darjeeling are as old as 100 years, but no systematic and steady uprooting and replanting programme has been undertaken in the last 50 years. The innate immunity of the bushes has reduced. More and more pesticides have to be used to maintain the yield.

Moreover, Ramesh Chandra Gautam, senior scientist in the division of agronomy at the Indian Council for Agricultural Research, New Delhi, adds, “Overuse of pesticides has led to pests becoming immune.” The pesticide trap is, thus, a vicious cycle.

Failure and Confusion in the Regulation of Pesticides in India

The regulation of pesticides in India is complicated and confusing. The regulatory system is in crisis and that there are some serious flaws.

The responsible authority for registering pesticides for use on crops to control pests and weeds is the Central Insecticides Board and Registration Committee (CIBRC), which falls under the Ministry of Agriculture (MoA). In addition, pesticides are also regulated by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), part of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW), which is responsible for setting tolerable residues of contaminants in foodstuffs.

With such a diversity of bodies making different recommendations on the use and applications of pesticides, the consequent overuse and misuse of pesticides is high.

There are inconsistencies between central registration, even between the CIBRC and the Tea Board (both government bodies), as well as differing regional recommendations like State Agricultural Universities (SAUs), the Tea Board and Tea Research Association.


The Demand

Greenpeace has embarked upon a mission to rid our beloved drink of all afflictions.

It has urged the government to move beyond their casual diminutive approach. Merely banning a few harmful ingredients would not solve the problem. Instead, policy and regulation needs to be made for the tea sector as a whole.

– Small tea growers need to be encouraged to shift rapidly away from the use of these chemical pesticides and thereby avoid the associated hazards and costs.

– The Big tea companies should work to move the tea sector away from the pesticide treadmill and adopt an ecological agriculture farming approach. In other words, they must care if the consumer ends up sipping pesticide laced water in the name of tea, and about the health of the 50,000 workers in the tea gardens of Darjeeling.

– Moreover, rather than investing in an expensive system to check for agro chemicals, tea-companies should invest the same financial resources in non-pesticide solutions, which are economically, ecologically and socially viable to chemical substance.

– The Tea industry should invest in ecological agriculture techniques that could prove to be both, a sound business choice for the tea sector, as well as a global market leadership opportunity for any given tea brand.

Need of the hour

It is a myth that harmful chemical pesticides are the only true way to rid gardens and crop fields from pests. We need to break the habit of using harmful pesticides and switch to rising organic ones that break down quickly in the sunlight and in the soil. The faster a chemical breaks down, the sooner the soil can return to a healthy state. The tea sector needs to become aware of ecological agriculture systems which already exist and to apply the same principles in tea cultivation.

India is not alien to the concept of Organic Farming and Pesticide-free production, even in the tea-sector.

The Case Of West Jalinga

When the bulk of the food production sector in India is contaminated with the continual practice of chemical methods in farming, the case of Jalinga Naturorganic Tea, in Assam, serves as a pioneer example for organic tea farming. Jalinga Naturorganic Tea, as the name suggests, is a natural organic tea that is cultivated upon the self-nourishment principle of plants, which not only replenishes the soil with nutrients, but also effectively controls pests.


Tucked away in a corner of Cachar district, West Jalinga tea estate looks like any of the lush plantations that dot the Assam landscape. Set over 1,200-hectare plantation, it is the largest organic tea garden in the world.

Tea Board Reacts

Because of Greenpeace’s report and the increasing public support, the Tea Board has called for a meeting between Greenpeace and tea companies. It has accepted that the Greenpeace report complies with the Indian laws and regulations and is in the interest of consumers.

The Tea Board also recently released a set of FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) on their website, clarifying the concerns of the consumers regarding the issues.

Also, in an encouraging turn of events, two of the leading tea companies have come forward in support of Non-Pesticide Management (NPM) in tea. Hindustan Unilever has announced that it will be initiating a scientific research study to evaluate the environmental and economic feasibility of applying biological or non-pesticide methods for plant protection of Indian tea crops. Simultaneously, three Tata companies have announced an initiative – Sustainable Plant Protection Formulation (SPPF) Project – to develop and use ecological solutions for plant protection in tea. This is an initiative of Tata Chemicals, Tata Global Beverages and Rallis.

HUL (with brands like Lipton) and TGB (owning Tata and Tetley brands) are two biggest `packeteers’ of tea. This is a huge feat, in our struggle for health and well-being, which are after all, our fundamental rights.

You can also change the future of Indian tea for the better! Extend your support. There’s strength in numbers.
Sign and Share for #CleanChai

With the growing concerns over health and fitness, to know that our very own cup of tea that we have first thing in the morning to stimulate our senses and refresh ourselves is in fact poison, is cataclysmic! It poses serious questions as to the long-term sustainability of the tea sector in India. We need to demand from the government and all tea manufactures, the assurance that tea is safe from crop to crop and cup to cup.