Bangladeshis at present consume about 1.5 million tons of salt every year but an unspecific portion of this amount is adulterated, it has emerged.
The adulterated salt contain many harmful chemicals like sodium sulphate – originally used as detergent and driving agent in different industries – and most of us do not even know how safe the salt we use is.
Unscrupulous businessmen have been importing this type of salt for years, manipulating loopholes in the import policy and evading the law enforcers, SM Nazer Hossain, vice-president of Consumer Association of Bangladesh's Chittagong Divisional Committee, said.
Experts say adulterated salt can cause various diseases and even damage the kidney.
Dr Md Nurul Amin, chairman of the Department of Applied Chemistry and Chemical Engineering of Dhaka University, said they had received some salt samples from Chittagong customs after they seized 2,000 tons of adulterated salt on June 20.
“They told us that they initially found traces of excess sodium chloride in a salt consignment. We found 91.5% sodium chloride, 7.5% sodium sulphate and 1% moisture in the salt. These can cause diseases,” he told the Dhaka Tribune.
“This salt can cause nausea and swelling of the body,” Amin said, warning that eating too much of this salt can even damage the kidneys.
He said they filed a report with the customs department on July 10 after running tests on the salt.
“After looking at the shocking results, I decided to run tests on various salts available in the markets,” he said, adding that their previous tests on locally produced salts found no harmful substances.
A senior customs intelligence official said Azmir Trading Corporation and Asha Enterprises imported the toxic food salt from China. The presence of sodium chloride was found in abundance during initial testing.
Later, the samples were sent to Dhaka for further tests.
Sources said the two importers had earlier imported 3,000 tons of salt with high sodium chloride content through Chittagong Port and sold them in the local markets.
Bangladesh introduced the National Salt Policy in 2011, discouraging salt import. However, the government has allowed import of 0.5 million tons of salt over the next four months to keep supply in the market stable.
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Seawater is evaporated under the sun to produce salt at a salt field at Kutubdia, around 400km away from Dhaka Mahmud Hossain Opu/Dhaka Tribune
This year, salt production fell short by 200,000 tons of the target due to natural disasters.
Nurul Kabir, president of Chittagong Salt Mill Owners' Association, claimed that hundreds of thousands of tons of white salt, harmful for the body, were being imported illegally from China regularly.
“This salt costs as much as ours, but customers opt for the adulterated salt unknowingly because of its white colour,” he said.
Kabir said the unscrupulous businessmen also use forged logos of popular salt brands of the country. “They send the salt to Narayanganj and distribute it from there. This not only harms our business but also tarnishes the image of the brands,” he added.
Salt farmers of Cox's Bazar said hundreds of thousands of people in Ramu, Ukhia, Teknaf, Chokoria, Pekua, Moheshkhali, Kutubdia, and the sadar upazila depend on the salt trade for their livelihoods.
Mud-free white salt is being sold to the wholesalers at Tk380-Tk400 per maund, mud-mixed black salt at Tk300 to Tk380 and salt produced using the polythene system at Tk400 to Tk550.
State-run Trading Corporation of Bangladesh said prices of iodine mixed salt has risen by Tk5. They are currently being sold at Tk 25-40 per kilogram.
A kilogram of Molla salt costs Tk26 while the ACI brand costs Tk40 in Kawranbazar.
Most people don’t know if the salt they are buying are safe. “I just buy packet salt from local markets at Tk40 per kg,” Almas Sarder, a resident of West Rajabazar in Dhaka, said. “How will we know if the salt is safe? It is the government's job to inform us.”
Ariful Islam, a wholesale salt dealer at Kawranbazar, said he had heard about toxic salts flooding the market but insisted that they only sold locally produced salt.
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A Bangladeshi child labor works in a boat loaded with salt at Kutubdia, an island around 400km away from Dhaka Mahmud Hossain Opu/Dhaka Tribune
CAB's Nazer blamed the customs department's “lax supervision” for the import of “thousands of tons of adulterated salt” that go unnoticed.
“The businessmen manipulate loopholes in the import policy,” he claimed, accusing the customs department of negligence of duty. “The customs department does not examine the products properly and do not even know what kind of goods are being imported. They only sign off the papers.”
Despite repeated attempts, neither the concerned customs department officials nor the commerce secretary could be reached for comments for this article.
Nazer said various harmful chemicals, used in adulterating products, were being imported under different names. “The government employees do not test these properly and that is why these products are flooding the markets. We will speak to the Commerce Ministry soon in this regard,” he added.
A senior Chittagong custom intelligence official, declining to give his name, said sodium chloride, used in various industries, was imported legally. “What can we do if someone mixes it with salt? Our duty is to seize products that are harmful or are illegally imported,” he added.