Plastic pollution keeps surprising us. After scientists discovered plastic pollution even in the world’s most remote places and have been continuously warning for the dangers of plastic concentration as it passes higher up the food chain, now it’s time to discuss about plastics in tap water and salts.
Following recent revelations in the Guardian about levels of plastic contamination in tap water, new studies have shown that tiny particles have been found in sea salt in the UK, France and Spain, as well as China and now the US. Researchers believe the majority of the contamination comes from microfibers and single-use plastics such as water bottles, items that comprise the majority of plastic waste.
Sherri Mason, a professor at the State University of New York at Fredonia, has been conducting studies on microfiber pollution, and also led the latest research into plastic contamination in salt. Natural fibers, such as cotton or wool, biodegrade over time. But synthetic fibers are problematic because they are not biodegradable, and tend to bind with molecules of harmful chemical pollutants found in wastewater, or even possibly they end up in animals’ tissues, according to Mason’s research in Lake Michigan. Mason is now collaborating with researchers at the University of Minnesota to examine microplastics in salt, beer and drinking water. Her research looked at 12 different kinds of salt (including 10 sea salts) bought from US grocery stores around the world. In August, Spanish researchers concluded “sea products are irredeemably contaminated by microplastics” and there is “a background presence of microplastics in the environment”, in a study published in Scientific Reports in Nature. There, scientists tested 21 types of table salt and found plastic in all of them. The most common type of plastic they found was polyethylene terephthalate, the material used to make plastic bottles. Some researchers, such as Mason, now believe sea salt could be more vulnerable to plastic contamination because of how it is made, through a process of dehydration of sea water.
Mason found Americans could be ingesting upwards of 660 particles of plastic each year, if they follow health officials’ advice to eat 2.3 grams of salt per day. However, most Americans could be ingesting far more, as health officials believe 90% of Americans eat too much salt. The health impact of ingesting plastic is not known. Scientists have struggled to research the impact of plastic on the human body, because they cannot find a control group of humans who have not been exposed. Like so many environmental problems – climate change, pesticides, air pollution – the impacts only become clear years after damage has been done. If we are lucky, the plastic planet we have created will not turn out to be too toxic to life. If not, cleaning it up will be a mighty task. Dealing properly with all waste plastic will be tricky: stopping the unintentional loss of microplastics from clothes and roads even more so. But above all, if we are all drinking, eating and breathing microplastic every day, we need to know what this is doing to us, and we need to know urgently.
There is a huge scientific effort, worldwide, to identify the required solutions. Although there is no simple nor single way to deal with the plastic pollution of our oceans, a recent report published by the International Solid Waste Management Association highlights the linkages between Marine Litter and Waste Management and proposes investments in Circular Economy, Recycling and Waste Infrastructure as the main way to prevent Marine Litter.