Posted on: September 28, 2019 at 3:20 pm

I remember the first cup of hot tea I ever had.

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I was 17 and recovering from a misdiagnosis that left me unable to walk or feed myself. My mom had to go to work and so left me with my grandmother to help take care of me. My grandmother sat me on the couch, put Cesar Millan (the famous dog trainer) on the TV, and made me a cup of Lipton black tea.

It’s a cheap tea that’s available at any supermarket in America, but I loved the way it made me feel—there was something sacred about it.

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In the 12 years since then, I’ve become a self-proclaimed tea connoisseur. I no longer purchase tea from the supermarket, instead opting for organic loose-leaf teas from Nepal, and my kitchen is full of herbs that I use to make my own specific blends (my current favorite is one suggested by my herbalist, a ginger infusion with rose petals, holy basil, and cinnamon).

But the truth is that I still drink tea from tea bags on occasion. If I’m not at home, or a friend offers me a cup, tea bags are usually involved, and I’m not one to turn down a cup of tea.

A cup of tea normally wouldn’t be cause for alarm—except that new research is showing that your teabag could be exposing you to microplastics.

If You Enjoy Pyramid Teabags, You Could Be Ingesting Billions of Microplastics Per Cup

While most tea bags are made out of paper, some tea manufacturers are making what is known as “pyramid” tea bags, called so due to their shape. These tea bags are considered to be more exclusive and, for some tea fans, signify a better brand of tea.

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But turns out, these tea bags are made of polyethylene terephthalate (also known as PET, the same type of plastic used in plastic water bottles) and nylon.

Unfortunately, these materials have been vetted for use with hot food and drinks, and are considered safe [1]. However, previous research has noted the ability of plastics such as PET to leach chemicals that are known endocrine disruptors into bottled water, especially at warmer temperatures [2].

So when Nathalie Tufenkji, a professor of chemical engineering at Montreal University, ordered a tea at a coffee shop one morning, she was shocked to see the plastic bag floating inside. Upon returning to her lab, she had one of her graduate students go out and buy pyramid tea bags from different brands. They were going to test cups of tea to see if these tea bags were, in fact, shedding microplastics into the beverage.

The results, which were published in the journal of Environmental Science & Technology, were alarming—when they steeped the tea bag in hot water—as it’s intended for, of course—microplastic and nanoplastic particles were released in the billions in a single cup of tea [3].

To be more specific, one cup of tea made with one tea bag yielded 11.6 billion microplastic and 3.1 billion nanoplastic particles. These particles are about the size of dust particles, so even when keeping these numbers in mind, the amount in one tea cup would be just a fraction of a milligram of plastic—about one-sixtieth to be exact.

The research Tufenkji and her team conducted took extra measures to ensure that the microplastics didn’t come from the tea itself and was instead the result of the tea bags. 

Are There Potential Health Effects?

Other products such as bottled water and even fish and chicken have been found to be contaminated with microplastics, but with the tea, “you’re literally adding plastic into the beverage” said Tufenkji.

So what gives as far as the potential health repercussions of such plastics?

We know that the endocrine disruptors that we noted earlier that PET plastic can leach into foods and drinks are chemicals that can cause negative reproductive, neurological, developmental, and even immune system effects in both humans and animals [4].

And yet, research is lacking about how exactly microplastic consumption effects humans. The World Health Organization (WHO) has called for more research regarding microplastics in the environment and their effect on human health [5].

However, according to an analysis by the WHO, the organization claims that microplastics larger than 150 micrometers are not likely to be absorbed by the human body, but there appears to be too little available information to draw any concrete conclusions from this number [6].

Tufenkji and her team also did a study on water fleas by exposing them to microplastics, and Tufenkji says more experiments on animals need to be done—something I can’t agree with or endorse.

Plus, I would argue that we’re all currently being test subjects for this microplastic exposure, and the sheer volume of microplastics—which the WHO acknowledges are “everywhere”, even being found in arctic ice—points to the need for better methods of testing in human subjects who are already exposed to microplastics daily [7], [8].

Here’s What You Need to Know

Colleagues of Tufenkji’s say that we’re getting closer to understanding the effect of microplastics on human life. 

Although these tea bags have been approved and are purportedly safe, I can’t help but feel the way about these plastic tea bags that I feel about vaping—it’s too soon to know the long-term effects of these products on our bodies [9].

What we do know is that our marine life, which humans consume, retains microplastics in their bodies, and that there is preliminary evidence pointing to the fact that microplastic exposure can affect our own bodies and our immune systems, even if there’s currently a lack of concrete data regarding the effects [10], [11]

What more do we need to know before we stop using these products for our foods and drinks?

Personally, I think organic loose-leaf tea tastes way better than tea bags, and once you try it, you won’t want to go back. Finding loose-leaf tea at the store and online has become easier than ever, and you can invest in a reusable strainer, which will help you eliminate your waste and produce even less plastic. Tufenkji also pointed to the disposable tea bag as another cause of plastic pollution, which is another reason to avoid these pyramid tea bags, and even just tea bags in general.

In the meantime, you might want to skip the pyramid tea bags in an effort to not only reduce your plastic consumption but to avoid the billions of microplastics you didn’t realize you’d purchased along with your fancy tea.

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Jenn Ryan
Freelance Health & Wellness Writer
Jenn Ryan is a freelance writer and editor who's passionate about natural health, fitness, gluten-free, and animals. She loves running, reading, and playing with her four rescued rabbits.

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