I’ll Have A Tall, No-Foam Cup Of Chemicals Please!

Health Risks of using Disposable Coffee Cups

While tea and coffee themselves can provide various health and social benefits, the type of packaging and the vessel they come in can pose certain health risks. It’s worth knowing these so you can be conscious in your product choices to avoid toxic exposures. 


Even supposedly safer “paper” coffee cups have a thin lining of plastic between the paper that leaches microplastics into the water under heat. According to a 2021 study, a 100 ml cup can contain an average of 25,000 microplastic particles within 15 minutes of being put in hot water. Of note according to the abstract of the study, toxic heavy metals such as lead, chromium and cadmium were also detected in the hot water. Studies including a 2023 literature review suggest that exposure to these chemicals can lead to serious health problems, including reproductive and developmental issues, thyroid problems, and certain cancers.

Fortunately, a simple solution is to bring a reusable stainless steel thermos to coffee shops, which are durable, easy to clean and free of harmless chemicals. Many coffee shops, including the behemoth Starbucks, offer discounts to customers who bring their own cups. As of January 2024, Starbucks offers 10-cent discount for you bringing your own “personal cup.” Reusable cups have the additional benefit of being eco friendly and reducing waste. 

On a relevant side-note, there’s been some concerns in the news about the recent Stanley Cup craze about lead in these cups despite the interior being stainless steel. According to Snopes, “The construction of a Stanley tumbler involves lead-based solder, but this material does not come into contact with the beverage and is hidden under a disc on the bottom of the tumbler. The cup is safe to drink from; but if the disc falls off and exposes the solder, you should get a replacement.”


Moving on to tea bags, some tea bags have been found to contain harmful chemicals as well. One such chemical is epichlorohydrin, which is used to make the tea bag paper strong and prevent it from breaking during use. However, epichlorohydrin is classified as a potential carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. To avoid this chemical, opt for tea bags that are free from epichlorohydrin.

How to choose clean tea products:

  1. Packaging.  Opt for either loose leaf tea, or look for tea bags made from plant-based materials or natural fibers such as cotton or silk. According to a 2023 review: “Even paper tea bags have an unsettling substance called epichlorohydrin added to them in order to keep them from bursting. According to a recent study, each cup of tea produced by one plastic tea bag steeped at brewing temperature included roughly 11.6 billion MPs and 3.1 billion nanoplastics (NPs)6.”
  2. Ingredients. Look for whether the tea contains artificial or natural flavorings, colors, or preservatives. Avoid products with added flavors, even “natural” flavors. Another essential thing to watch out for is heavy metals in certain types of tea, especially scented teas. Heavy metals like lead can make their way into tea leaves from contaminated soil, and can pose serious health dangers with long-term exposure. It’s important to choose tea brands that prioritize testing for heavy metals, such as Avocado Tea Co., Numi Organic Tea, and Rishi Tea.
  3. Consider the sourcing and processing methods to ensure that the brand maintains quality standards. For example, “de-caffeinated” tea and coffee products are stripped of coffee either by a chemical process or more natural process.  Some alarm has been raised about the use of methylene chloride in the decaffeination process of certain products, which is also commonly used in paint removers. Exposure to methylene chloride can cause some uncomfortable side effects like headaches, tiredness, or feeling irritable. Methylene chloride is categorized as a probable human carcinogen and a potential hormone disruptor. The carbon dioxide decaffeination method is chemical-free and natural and therefore thought to be harmless to human health. For a list of methylene-containing vs. non brands, the Clean Label Project contains a list here.


In conclusion, being mindful of the risks of certain chemicals in disposable coffee cups, tea bags, and ingredients in teas can go a long way in protecting one’s health. Switching to clean alternatives like metal thermoses and being discerning about tea brands are two great ways to prioritize health and prevent exposure to harmful chemicals. 🍵🫖

Read Also: 5 Tips To Minimize Environmental Toxin Exposure

Maia Mossé, MD, March, 2024

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