|Wasabi, Iwasaki Kanen 1828|
via Wikimedia Commons
Could your wasabi peas be poisoning you? Short answer. Maybe.
Delish recently posted an article on thallium — a highly toxic metal — in kale, the quintessential healthy green. The Internet relished the irony of finding toxic metals in the highly touted greens. The piece points to an article in Craftsmanship magazine, which attempts to make a link between consumption of kale and thallium levels. This is not new news. There are dozens of reports, going back two decades, in the scientific literature of thallium in cruciferous vegetables, such as kale and brussell sprouts — and wasabi.
Thallium is definitely a nasty element, and has an infamous history of use as a poison in fact and fiction, starting with Ngaio Marsh's Final Curtain. Read Deborah Blum's hair-raisingly fascinating Poisoner's Handbook (or her short article at Wired about a recent murder case in Princeton). But as with everything, dose makes the poison, and the amounts of thallium in plants vary widely depending on the concentrations in the soil. In highly contaminated soils, plants can contain enough thallium to be hazardous. But if such highly contaminated soils were widespread, we'd have seen the effects already. (See this paper for some background.) (Also, you can leverage this ability and use it to clear out the thallium from a contaminated area.)
So how does thallium get into the plants? There is some evidence that thallium ions travel the same pathways as potassium ions (which play key roles in plant metabolism), and so might find their way into plants (and animals) though similar processes.
Thallium is also in the same column as boron, and elements in the same column of the periodic table often have similar behaviors, because their electrons are arranged in similar patterns. For example, strontium, which is underneath calcium, sneaks into the body by way of the same processes calcium does. Boron is found in plants (coffee is a good source, and plants in the same family as kale are also heavy absorbers of boron); it is believed to be critical to cell wall formation.
And if there is boron and thallium, indium - in the same column is another likely companion. And yes, indium has been detected in plants in the cabbage family.
As always, eating a wide variety of things is good advice, and it's key to remember that "natural" is not the same as "safe."