The study, published in the scientific journal Scientific Reports, analyzed seventeen commercial salt brands from eight different countries on four continents for plastic particles. To do this, they dissolved the salt in water and filtered it to see which particles were left over. They found plastics in all but one brand.
This sounds totally shocking, and yes, we have every right to be upset. But maybe we should have seen this one coming: It’s no secret our oceans are riddled with trash—we’ve all heard about the mythic Great Pacific Garbage Patch (though it is more a swirling soup of plastics than the solid garbage island the name implies)—and scientists have long known that oceans and waterways are loaded with millions of tiny plastic particles. As the study’s authors say, saltwater products are “are expected to inevitably contain contaminants from the water,” though until that this study there was little evidence of what exactly that looked like.
These tiny bits of plastic contaminants are called microplastics and there’s a number of ways they can end up in the ocean. Most obviously, microplastics can be the result of plastic trash, like shopping bags and cellophane packaging, fragmenting repeatedly in the environment into microscopic bits. But they can also enter the water system when you do your laundry. When you wash clothing made from synthetic fibers, like fleece jackets made from recycled plastic water bottles, it sheds bits of plastic lint that go down the drain and eventually end up in the bellies of fish and, as we now know, our salt shakers.
In these two scenarios, plastics end up in water more or less accidentally, but there are also ways we deliberately send plastic pieces into the sea. Fortunately, the U.S. banned microbeads (tiny plastic balls), from use as exfoliators in face scrubs and other personal care items beginning this year, but they’re still allowed to be used for sandblasting and other industrial uses.
As they say, what goes around comes around, and if you put trash into the ocean, you get trash out. So how worried should we be about eating plastic-laced salt? The researchers say that the levels of microplastics are so low that it won’t affect your health—you can expect to consume about 37 plastic particles per year from salt—though they recommend more studies to better understand the risks.
The study did no disclose specific brands, but says those tested came from Australia, France, Iran, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Portugal, and South Africa. Only the one from France did not contain plastic particles.
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