Scientists have warned that pregnant women who eat baked clay for cultural reasons may be putting their babies in danger.
The ancient tradition remains common in large regions of the world, particularly India, Africa and Bangladesh, and some parts of the UK.
Women traditionally eat clay for medicinal and nutritional reasons, but scientists warn it can contain high levels of toxins.
Researchers purchased clay samples - known as sikor - from eight ethnic shops around the country, including in Birmingham, Leicester and Luton. Each bag contained 250g of sikor as small tablets.
The sikor used - imported from Bangladesh - was found to contain high levels of cadmium, arsenic and lead, which can lead to brain damage, cancer and kidney damage.
De Montford University’s head of the biomedical and environmental health group Dr Parvez Haris said lead can also result in premature delivery, stillbirth and miscarriage.
His team calculated that eating just 50g of sikor per day can cause three to six times the tolerable daily exposure to arsenic and lead.
It is estimated that some people consume as much as 500g per day in a practice commonly known as geophagy, he added.
Dr Haris said: “Geophagy has been in existence in virtually all societies since ancient times and is still prevalent in many parts of the world and the availability of sikor in the UK shows that pregnant women are still taking part in the practice.
“This is hugely worrying not only for pregnant women in the UK consuming the material, but for women in India and Bangladesh who may be drinking arsenic-contaminated water as well.”
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