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Earth’s salt cycle is fast becoming a serious problem

Humanity’s excessive salt production is reportedly throwing Earth’s natural balance off-kilter. Is this yet another ‘existential threat’ caused by modern consumerism?

If something is ‘salt of the Earth’ it is good and honest – ironically the opposite of humanity when talking our ecological impact on the planet.

Anthropogenic climate change is undoubtedly our magnum opus, but there’s a rarely discussed issue which is rapidly growing into yet another existential threat, according to new research.

If the opening gambit didn’t give it away, yes, we’re talking about our excessive use of salt – specifically, the 300 metric tons produced each year for our household products, cosmetics, fertilizers, and industrial materials, among other things.

While salt naturally emerges from deep oceanic rocks and gradually reaches the Earth’s surface, human activities are completely upending this balance. Our growing demand is leading to an excessive release of the mineral into our atmosphere, soil, and oceans.

Salt is vital for human biology, especially in maintaining our nerve signaling and keeping our heartbeat in check, as well as helping soil to maintain its normal structure.

Nonetheless, a large surplus has been found to have detrimental effects such as soil infertility, declines in plant-life, the disruption of marine food chains, and an open invitation to invasive plant species like phragmites, which can completely overtake coastal regions.

Reports indicate that around 833 hectares of land, an area approximately four times the size of India, is already affected by an over-concentration of salt. In Uzbekistan, as much as half of all farmland is believed to be infertile for this reason.

It’s no secret that livening up our meals with too much table salt is an unhealthy move, but we don’t realise how excessively salty groundwater – full of other calcium and magnesium-based salts – is harming us all.

‘It’s like this chemical cocktail of different salts from different sources,’ says study leader Sujay Kaushal. ‘We don’t know the effects of that [on general health]. We don’t know what the mixture of salt ions will do.’

While so-called ‘salinization’ is less studied than other ecological phenomena, it has likely been on the rise for decades. Having dedicated his professional career to advancing the theory and driving awareness, Kaushal warns we could be looking at a permanent crisis very soon.

Unfortunately, the global salt market is likely to expand by as much as 43% by 2030 and the US uses around 20 metric tons of salt per year to de-ice roads alone.

Hopefully this study can open eyes in the same way acid rain research ignited policies to begin addressing air pollution. ‘We hope that people will recognize salt as an agent of global change,’ Kaushal says.