Public Health England (PHE) is advising pregnant or breastfeeding women not to consume “Calabash chalk”, a possibly toxic traditional remedy for morning sickness. The Food Standards Agency (FSA) had previously notified the general public against the consumption of this chalk in 2002.

Why is this chalk hazardous?

“Tests of Calabash Chalk previously taken by the FSA have shown high levels of lead. For pregnant women, eating this product may result in harmful effects to their unborn baby, which is particularly at risk of effects on the nervous system,” reported Diane Benford from the FSA.

Dr Yvonne Doyle, regional director for PHE London, stated that “exposure to heavy metals, like lead, should be kept as low as practically possible under all circumstances, but particularly during pregnancy when the risk of adverse effects is large.”

The reason is that the body of a growing baby absorbs lead more readily but is not as efficient when it comes to excreting heavy metals.

The PHE warns that in-utero lead exposure could seriously impair the foetus’ neurodevelopment and restrict its growth. The mother could also be at increased risk of delivering a low birth weight baby.

Iron-deficiency anaemia and decreased zinc absorption have also been linked to chronic ingestion of the chalk. These two minerals are vital for the baby’s proper growth and development.

Environmental Health officers in London recently impounded the chalk — analysis revealed that, besides lead, the ‘antidote’ also contained alarming levels of arsenic, a metal known to be toxic to humans.

What is being done to remedy to the situation?

“The FSA has issued hazard warnings to request that local authorities visit food businesses and remove Calabash Chalk from sale. It is also working with the Department of Health, health professionals and consumer groups to communicate this information to pregnant and nursing mothers, particularly in the communities who are likely to eat Calabash Chalk or similar products,” reported Dr Doyle.

What is Calabash chalk?

This chalk, which is not a conventional food, is also known as ‘La craie’, ‘Argile’, ‘Nzu’ or ‘Calabar Stone’. It is often consumed by pregnant or nursing mothers of Asian or African origin to alleviate morning sickness. Calabash chalk is sold in powder form or as moulded shapes and blocks.

What you should do if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding and taking Calabash chalk

Follow the FSA’s recommendations: stop taking the chalk immediately. The agency explains that lead builds up in the body over time — if you stop eating the chalk, the levels of lead will gradually decrease and so will the health hazards for your baby. There’s no need for you to stop breastfeeding.

Natural — and safe — remedies for morning sickness

  • Graham crackers
  • Lemon: suck on a fresh wedge or take a deep sniff
  • Ginger sweets
  • Hot infusions made from fresh basil or fennel
  • Unsweetened fizzy water with some lemon juice or crushed mint
  • Reduced sodium pretzels
  • Crackers
  • Dry Swiss Muesli
  • Rice pudding or tapioca

To alleviate nausea, you could also:

  • Eat your meals at room temperature (especially breakfast).
  • Eat smaller, regular meals.
  • Avoid spicy and oily foods.
  • Avoid drinking large volumes of water at once.