Plastic seems to be getting into everything these days, from plastic microbeads in your toothpaste to disconcerting levels in our seafood. In fact, it seems like plastics can be found in all sorts of unexpected locations — a sad byproduct of long-term pollution. But, according to recent research, sneaky microplastics can probably be found in one of the more innocuous and well-loved substances in your pantry — your salt.
Let’s start by figuring out what microplastics actually are. Microplastics are ultra-tiny plastic particles that are easily absorbed into organisms, and can then encourage further absorption of other pollutants. They are caused by the physical breakdown of ocean-polluting plastics like cellophane over time. These plastic compounds break down physically into tiny micro-pieces, but their molecular structure remains intact (since we all know that plastics take an insane amount of time to actually break down). As to how harmful they are to our long-term health, we still aren’t sure. But, they certainly aren’t doing the ocean’s environment any favors, and scientists agree that the more they learn about them, the more questions they have.
The tough thing is, salt is really unavoidable. While you can generally steer clear of seafood if you are concerned about ingesting microplastics, salt is an ubiquitous and necessary part of the human diet. While some salts may have less contamination, plastic pollution is widespread. A recent study tested 15 brands of salt samples from Chinese supermarkets and found all of them to be contaminated with microplastics.
It’s not just ocean-derived salt, either. There was evidence of microplastic contamination in Chinese salt samples from wells, mines and briny lakes. In the study, ocean-originating salt had the greatest density of microplastic contamination — averaging around 600 particles per kilogram. However, the tested lake salts ranged from 43 to 364 particles, and even well salts contained 7 to 204 particles.
While China is a hotbed for microplastic pollution, it is unlikely that Chinese salt is the only contaminated salt. Plastic pollution is a global issue, and it is a problem of which we should all be made more aware. If you’re looking to lessen your exposure, it seems as though rock or well salt is the least contaminated, while sea salt has the highest likelihood of contamination. But, to prevent further contamination, we should probably be taking serious steps to reduce plastic consumption and pollution in the future.