Salt is about as basic as ingredients get. It’s perhaps the one thing—aside from water, anyway—that's in almost everything we eat. That's why it's particularly sobering to hear that researchers have found tiny particles of plastic in salt supplied from a variety of sources in China.
“Sea products, such as sea salts, are contaminated by microplastics,” concluded the paper by researchers at Shanghai’s East China Normal University.
The team analyzed 15 brands of common table salt bought at supermarkets throughout the country, including product sourced from briny lakes, wells, and salt mines. Although plastic was found in all samples, the highest concentration was found in sea salt—more than 1,200 particles of plastic per pound.
Polyethylene terephthalate (the plastic typically used for disposable water bottles) was common, along with polyethylene, cellophane, and other varieties.
“Microplastics are a particular threat to organisms due to their small size and their capacity to absorb persistent organic pollutants,” the report added.
The easy takeaway is to not buy salt from China, and the good news is that relatively little salt is exported from China to the U.S. The bad news? The problem is likely not limited to salt sourced in China. As Sherri Mason, who studies plastic pollution at SUNY Fredonia, told Scientific American:
“Plastics have become such a ubiquitous contaminant, I doubt it matters whether you look for plastic in sea salt on Chinese or American supermarket shelves. I’d like to see some ‘me-too’ studies.”
In the U.S., sand-sized plastic microbeads give grit to face wash, dish soap, and toothpaste, then head down the drain and into our waterways when we wash it off or spit it out. It’s akin to grinding up millions of plastic water bottles and sending them out into the ecosystem.
A recent report conservatively estimated that 8 trillion microbeads per day enter aquatic habitats in the United States; an even greater quantity lands in sewage plant sludge, much of which also finds its way into streams and oceans.
Fortunately, the microbead problem may be on the verge of extinction. Illinois became the first jurisdiction in the world to ban plastic microbeads from personal care products in 2014. Other states soon followed suit, and Colgate-Palmolive and Unilever have also committed to end the use of microbeads.
Meanwhile, perhaps it’s time for a similar study of how plastic is invading salt and other American food ingredients. It’s not just salt we should be concerned with—seafood may also be suffering from a toxic dose of plastic waste.