Toxins present in the environment are a common but under-appreciated cause of kidney disease and kidney failure. Environmental causes typically include chemical agents (eg. heavy metals), physical agents (eg. high temperature/heat, dehydration), and biological/infectious agents (eg. malaria, HIV etc).

While you might be able to avoid these toxins, or have only limited exposure to those agents, one source of kidney toxins that could have far more ubiquitous and widespread effects is toxins present in food.

Anyone could get exposed. And they hit where it hurts the most.

The effects that food toxins can have on health are as varied as the number of adulterants. Since everything from sand, to lead, to arsenic, to antibiotics could be used to adulterate food, it is difficult to pinpoint specific effects of adulterated food. I have covered some of these toxins in other articles. Here, I want to lay out the effects of a common food adulterant that has an especially damaging influence on the kidneys.


Melamine is a compound that is rich in nitrogen and is synthesized from urea. It is used in plastics, adhesives, and dishware. Now we know that proteins are rich in nitrogen too. So if someone goes looking for a less-than-legal way to make the protein content of food appear higher than what it actually is, what do they do? Well, they typically mix in some melamine. The food that has seen some of the most widespread adulteration with melamine is milk.

The practice is thought to have originated in China where unscrupulous suppliers would first add water to milk to increase its volume, and then add melamine to make up for the fall in protein content (which otherwise would make it apparent that the milk had been diluted with water).

While the malpractice of adding melamine to milk might have been going on for years, some of the earlier evidence of its health effects came from veterinary journals. The effects on human health started to be recognized when, in 2008, the World Health Organization (WHO) investigated infant deaths that were possibly linked to contaminated infant milk formula and other dairy products. The scale can be gauged from the fact that 294,000 infants were affected, and 50,000 required hospitalization. 6 deaths were reported as well.

Further investigation revealed that milk was not the only food item that appeared to be contaminated intentionally by melamine. Contamination was reported in cookies, candies, frozen drinks, coffee drinks, etc. It eventually found its way to eggs and meat from livestock that were fed animal-feed tainted with melamine (due to use of wheat gluten and rice protein concentrate that had melamine adulteration). The problem was widespread given China’s role as the world’s manufacturing hub. Melamine-contaminated pet feed manufactured in China and exported to the US caused the death of a large number of dogs and cats due to kidney failure.


Melamine is excreted in the urine by the kidneys, and wreaks its havoc by blocking the tubules (one of the parts of kidney where urine is formed and drained). It does so by forming melamine crystals. This causes inflammation, bleeding, and cell death inside the kidney. Hence, non-fatal cases of melamine poisoning in infants that were reported from China developed kidney stones and kidney failure. Blood in urine and high blood pressure have been reported as well.


Kidney failure is not the only health risk that we need to contend with. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has concluded that there is sufficient evidence to support that melamine does cause cancer in animals. No data was available to support or refute this in humans though.


Before morally-deranged, psychopathic manufacturers in China felt completely OK about murdering infants with melamine adulterated milk and make a quick buck in the process, melamine had (and still does) widespread industrial applications. A common source of exposure to the average person could be the melamine present in plastic and dishware.

A study done in Taiwan on plastic dishware that had melamine showed that melamine can migrate very slowly out of the plastic into food that comes in contact with it. However, this amount is usually not significant to have health effects UNLESS extraordinary conditions like temperatures over 160 degrees F are present. Well, those conditions are not really extraordinary inside a microwave oven. Therefore, the next time you decide to heat your food in a non-microwaveable dish, think twice!

Thanks to this widespread “economically-motivated” food fraud, milk joins the likes of olive oil, honey, coffee, and orange juice as one of the the most adulterated foods in the world. All of which makes me disturbed and very cynical. Is there anything left safe to eat? Am I consuming foods today that will completely ruin my health (but I won’t know for another thirty years)?! What kind of world are we leaving for our children?

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See’s Medical Review Board.

About the writer – Veeraish Chauhan, MD, Kidney Disease Expert. He is an American-Board Certified Nephrologist, a.k.a. a kidney doctor. He spends his time between clinical practice, teaching medical students/residents, research, and writing a blog.


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