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THOMPSON: The problem with plastic tea bags

October 28, 2019 - 12:00 PM

OPINION


I love coffee…morning, noon and night. So, I don’t drink much tea…especially hot tea. But beyond not liking it, I found another good reason not to drink this beverage that usually comes in small little bags with a string attached for steeping.

You see, it seems a lot of tea companies make their tea bags out of plastic.

Now, I’m not a chemical engineer, but a friend of mine was a scientist at the DuPont Company’s Experimental Station back in the early-1980s…the company’s primary research and development laboratory. My friend was nominated for a Nobel Prize, so no slouch as a scientist, and I loved that he could make complex subjects understandable.

I remember him saying migration was a nasty problem with plastics…the leaching of chemicals and compounds in plastics into the foods and beverages we eat and drink. Apparently, it’s a  hard nut to crack…and it remains so today.

The most common plastic used worldwide in food and beverage packaging for decades is polyethylene terephthalate…PET. It’s ubiquitous…and used widely in manufacturing tea bags…millions upon millions of them. How can you make the problem of leaching chemicals and compounds in plastics worse? Simply heat them…like a nice cup of hot tea.

My scientist friend said much research was needed to gauge the health effects of plastics on humans…but he cautioned that waiting for plastics manufacturers to seek answers is like waiting for Godot. Ain’t gonna happen (to steal from the Hip-Hop genre).

Fast forward to 2017, when a chemical engineering professor - Nathalie Tufenkji - at McGill University in Montreal stopped for a cup of tea one morning at a nearby cafe.

She noticed her tea bag seemed to be made of plastic…and, according to her, said aloud, “That’s not a very good idea…putting plastic into boiling water.” That premise - that it wasn’t a good idea - was proven this month when Professor Tufenkji and her fellow researchers at McGill published their findings in the Environmental Science & Technology journal.

The McGill researchers - using electron microscopes - found one tea bag used one time released more than 11 billion micro-plastic and another three billion nano-plastic particles in a single cup of tea. The nano-plastic particles are small enough to enter human cells.

Earlier this summer, I wrote here about the problem of plastics in our bodies of water worldwide. It appears now that plastic in our actual bodies is no less of a problem.

However, my old friend at Du Pont and I are still awaiting any substantial research on the health implications of consuming plastics. And we could use it sooner than later. You see, we eat and drink a lot of plastic…at least I think it’s a lot…on average the equivalent of a credit card’s worth - five grams - every week.

By the way, the McGill researchers tested the plastic tea bag water on water fleas and while the tiny crustaceans lived, “they did show some anatomical and behavioral abnormalities.” Hmmm.

I don’t find it overly comforting that the Tea Association of the U.S.A., Inc., released a statement, which reads in part: "Materials used to create teabags, including nylon and PET, have been assessed by the FDA and other respected, independent agencies around the world for their safe use under various conditions of hot food and beverage contact applications. As explained in the study, the health effects of consuming micro- and nano-plastics to humans are not known.”

It’s that last sentence that is so troubling. We simply don’t know how consuming micro-plastics and nano-plastics affects us, short- or long-term.

Again, I’m not a chemical engineer…but you know what? It makes sense to me to limit to the lowest level possible how much plastic you eat and drink. It’s as common sense as not playing in traffic or not looking directly at the sun.

It’s difficult to get an up-to-date list of tea company brands that use or don’t use plastic in their tea bags. But if I were you…I’d call the toll-free number on the package of tea that you buy and simply ask…“Yes or no, does your tea bag have plastic in it?”

— Don Thompson, an American awaiting Canadian citizenship, lives in Vernon and in Florida. In a career that spans more than 40 years, Don has been a working journalist, a speechwriter and the CEO of an advertising and public relations firm. A passionate and compassionate man, he loves the written word as much as fine dinners with great wines. His essays are a blend of news reporting and opinion.


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