Most Sea Salt Contains Plastic Fragments

sea salt

Story at-a-glance -

  • A staggering amount of plastic enters the oceans each day, some breaking down into microsized particles that may be eaten by sea creatures and harvested in seawater when manufacturers produce salt
  • Unless practices change, nearly 26 million tons of plastic are estimated to reach the ocean each year, dramatically increasing damage done to marine wildlife and our food sources; researchers are now finding plastic particles in nearly 90 percent of salt samples
  • My favorite salt choice is Himalayan salt as the salt bed was produced thousands of years before plastics and toxins made their way into the environment; it may be the last source of salt uncontaminated by plastics

By Dr. Mercola

A staggering amount of plastic is entering the environment as the result of tons of disposable plastic bottles, bags and microfibers from your clothing. Although you likely do not experience the direct effect of garbage from your day to day life, it is quite literally choking our ecosystem. The amount of plastic that enters the environment grows each year as manufacturers continue to produce products in disposable containers and consumers continue to demand a disposable lifestyle.

It is estimated that unless practices change, the amount of plastic entering the ocean by 2025 could be as high as 26 million metric tons per year.1 According to environmental advocacy group Ocean Conservancy, some plastics resist degradation so long they may be in a recognizable shape for up to 400 years.

Heavily polluted areas of the ocean are referred to as garbage patches, and now cover nearly 40 percent of the world's ocean surfaces.2 But the problems are not limited to larger pieces of debris that resist breakdown. Some plastics break down easily in the sea current into microparticles less than 5 millimeters (0.19 inch) long. These pieces can migrate farther and faster, now being found as far as the Arctic Ocean.

In each of the larger ocean bodies are gyres, systems of circular currents formed by global wind patterns, circulating water around the globe.3 Recent research has now demonstrated some plastics, microfibers and plastic beads from facial scrubs have broken down into microparticles. These microparticles are being transported around the globe in waters being harvested for salt.

Ocean Plastic Pollutes Sea Salt

An initial study published in Environmental Science and Technology found salt sold and consumed in China contained microsized particles of plastics from disposable bottles, as well as polyethylene, cellophane and a number of other types of plastics. The highest levels of plastics were found in salt harvested from seawater.4 In other words, as you purchase sea salt to be healthy, you may be polluting your body with plastic.

In this study, more than 250 particles of plastics were found in 1 pound of sea salt. Sherri Mason, Ph.D., professor of chemistry in the Department of Geology and Environmental Sciences at State University New York Fredonia, commented on the results of this research before leading the most recent study evaluating the amount of plastic consumed in salt from around the world. Following the study from China, she said:5

"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."

Two years later she had published just such a study demonstrating Americans could be ingesting up to 660 microparticles of plastic each year if they consume no more than the recommended 2.3 grams of salt per day.6 However, nearly 90 percent of Americans eat more salt, which means they likely consume more plastic particles than estimated as well.

In collaboration with researchers from the University of Minnesota, Mason examined the number of plastics found in beer, tap water and salt. The study evaluated 12 different types of salt, 10 of them sea salt, from grocery stores around the world. Mason believes that sea salt is more vulnerable to plastic contamination since it's made by harvesting saltwater and allowing the water to evaporate, leaving the salt behind. Mason commented:7

"It's not that sea salt in China is worse than sea salt in America, it's that all sea salt — because it's coming from the same origins — is going to have a consistent problem. I think that's what we're seeing. I hope what comes from this is not that [consumers] just switch brands and try to find something that's table salt or mined salt.

People want to disconnect and say, 'It's OK if I go to Starbucks every day and get that disposable coffee cup' … We have to focus on the flow of plastic and the pervasiveness of plastics in our society and find other materials to be using instead."

UN Declares War on Ocean Plastic

Researchers believe the majority of plastic pollution originates from single-use plastics and microfibers. Currently, nearly 13 tons of plastic enter the oceans each year. This is equivalent to dumping a garbage truck full of plastic into the ocean every minute.8 If change doesn't occur, this may mean up to two garbage trucks full of plastic being dumped into the ocean every minute.

In response to the rising problem, the United Nations (U.N.) Environment announced a major global effort to end marine pollution tagged #CleanSeas.9 The campaign is urging governments around the world to pass plastic reduction policies, mandate redesign of products and call on consumers to change their habits — all before further irreversible damage is done to the seas.

Ten countries have already joined the campaign, including Indonesia, Costa Rica and Uruguay. The problems with plastic pollution are a combination of the physical plastic that is damaging the ecosystem and animal life, and the toxins that adhere to the plastics, making their way into animal bodies, destroying the health of the wildlife and the people who eat their meat.

England, Scotland and Germany are just three countries that have begun developing and instituting recycling programs to reduce plastic pollution emanating from their country.10 Erik Solheim, head of U.N. Environment, commented on the damage done to the environment from plastics:11

"It is past time that we tackle the plastic problem that blights our oceans. Plastic pollution is surfing onto Indonesian beaches, settling onto the ocean floor at the North Pole, and rising through the food chain onto our dinner tables. We've stood by too long as the problem has gotten worse. It must stop."

Countries are slowly taking notice of the devastation to marine life and their beaches from the irresponsible disposal of plastic products. After a campaign launched by Daily Mail, Britain announced a ban on the use of plastic microbeads commonly used in facial scrubs.12

Plastic Particles Enter Multiple Nutrition Sources

Studies have demonstrated that plastics are so ingrained in the ocean food chain they have contaminated the bodies of living creatures from zooplankton to lobster, crab and fish13 — all creatures eaten by other animals further up the food chain. While the smaller microparticles of plastic threaten the lives of sea creatures and those that eat them, so does the larger pieces of plastic in the ocean, as demonstrated in this short news video.

The assumption is that consumption of plastics, and the toxins that are absorbed by the plastics in the environment, is dangerous to your health. However, while I strongly believe this to be the case, media consistently points out that scientists are unable to prove the theory with a controlled study as nearly everyone on the planet has been exposed to plants, animals and water contaminated with microplastic particles.14

By themselves, plastic particles are dangerous when ingested. However, marine animals face a double danger, as those plastic particles attract and absorb chemical toxins. In a unique study from the University of California Davis,15 researchers evaluated the rates of five of the more commonly used plastics absorbed chemicals from the ocean water.

By placing pellets of each different type of plastic in mesh bags tied off docks at the study sites, researchers were able to measure the amount of persistent organic pollutants the plastics absorbed.

They found the highest contamination was absorbed by the two types of plastic used in the greatest number of products. Led by doctoral student Chelsea Rochman, the researchers expected the plastic pellets to absorb increasing amounts of contaminants for several months until they reached saturation. However, they found that it took between 20 and 44 months for the plastic pellets to stop absorbing toxins. Rochman commented:16

"It surprised us that even after a year, some plastics would continue to take up contaminants. As the plastic continues to degrade, it's potentially getting more and more hazardous to organisms as they absorb more and more contaminants."

Plastic Microparticles Linked to Liver Toxicity

Another study demonstrated the accumulation of chemical pollutants absorbed into plastic microparticles increase liver toxicity and pathology in the marine animals that eat them.17

When fish were fed similar plastic particles that had not absorbed additional chemical toxins, they also showed signs of stress but significantly less severe than those fed chemically laden fragments. Bioaccumulation of plastics and toxins is common in marine animals as both the plastics and the contaminants are resistant to metabolic or mechanical breakdown.

In another study evaluating the presence of microfibers in tap water,18 researchers found 83 percent of the samples collected from a dozen different nations were contaminated with plastic fibers. The U.S. had the highest contamination rate; plastic fibers were found in 94 percent of the sites sampled, including Congress buildings, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's headquarters and Trump Tower in New York.

What's Your Best Salt Option?

If you believe eating high amounts of salt would increase your thirst or your blood pressure, you are likely wrong. Studies have consistently failed to support these assertions.19,20 Instead, your body needs both the sodium and chloride ions that make up salt and is unable to produce either, so you must get it from your food.

However, not all salt is created equally. Refined table salt is nearly all sodium chloride with some additional man-made chemicals. Unprocessed salt, such as my particular favorite, pink Himalayan salt, has a different balance of sodium and chloride with added natural minerals your body also requires, such as phosphorus and vanadium.21 These other minerals are what color the salt pink.

Himalayan salt is mined from salt beds created long before plastic and other toxic chemicals were manufactured. When the ocean beds were lifted, as the Himalayan mountains were formed, these salt beds rose from the sea and were later protected by lava and covered in snow and ice for thousands of years. Compared to the salt mined from oceans laden with persistent organic pollutants and microparticles of plastic, Himalayan salt is by far your best option when you want to reduce your toxic load.

Reduce Your Toxic Load Making Simple Everyday Choices

You have an impact on your environment and your health with each choice you make each day. By making the commitment to reduce or eliminate your use of plastic containers and disposable products packaged in plastic, you make an impact on your health, reducing your exposure to bisphenol-A and other chemicals that leach into your food and water, and on your environment.

Glass is a healthy, reusable and recyclable option to use at home. If you are purchasing a product that isn't whole food, seek out those packaged in glass and not plastic and commit to recycling that glass. You can discover more steps you may take at home to reduce your toxic load in my previous article, "7 Ways to Cancer-Proof Your Home."

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