Long used by the Church to bless and protect, salt can exorcise microbes as well as demons
Antibiotic-resistant bacteria such as MRSA are a growing cause of concern in healthcare. Infections are easily spread in crowded conditions, including hospitals, and so-called “superbugs” have evolved a resistance to traditional antibiotics.
Now scientists think they may have discovered a way to limit microbial transfer – and it relies on something as simple and as widely available as salt.
At The Atlantic, Michael Hingston summarizes the findings that are generating real excitement in the healthcare community:
Superbugs like Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, have wreaked havoc on the health-care system in recent years. Drug-resistant infections, which include superbugs, are responsible for more than 700,000 deaths globally each year, and come with an approximate annual cost of $20 billion in the United States alone. How do you stop them? Frequent hand washing is one option, but that requires a behavior change, which can be difficult, even for hospital staff. Another option is to coat those frequently fondled objects most likely to carry the bugs—doorknobs, bed rails, toilet handles—with a special anti-microbial surface, like copper. This approach is increasingly popular, but time is of the essence when it comes to preventing the spread of disease, and MRSA has been shown to survive even on copper for several hours.
Who knew salt could be up for the job? Well, butchers, for one, who have used it to fight off pathogens like Salmonella for centuries. And it was a casual conversation with a former butcher that led Brayden Whitlock, a graduate student at the University of Alberta, to design a pilot study that put salt and copper head to head. Coupon-sized strips of pure, compressed sodium chloride were covered in an MRSA culture, alongside similar strips of antimicrobial copper and stainless steel. Whitlock found that salt killed off the bug 20 to 30 times faster than the copper did, reducing MRSA levels by 85 percent after 20 seconds, and by 94 percent after a minute.
That was “considerably faster” than expected, Whitlock says—and he believes this efficiency could have major ramifications for how bugs like MRSA spread. “It’s great to be able to eliminate pathogens over the course of a few hours,” he says, “but if you think of a busy place that has a doorknob, or a push pad, can you imagine a time when it goes more than a few minutes without being touched? The answer to us is no. And that’s why this is really exciting.”
Other researchers at the University of Alberta are working on developing salt-encrusted face masks for healthcare personnel, to prevent the aerial transmission of superbugs.
Hingston’s article notes that butchers, who have used salt for centuries as a meat preservative and a disinfectant, weren’t surprised at this new use for an old element. Catholics shouldn’t be surprised, either.
The ancient world used salt much as butchers today do, as a disinfectant, purifier, and preservative. These physical uses became ritualized in many early religions. In the Old Testament, the prophet Elisha uses salt to purify a polluted spring, both materially and spiritually. The ritual use of salt has been part of Catholic tradition since the earliest days.
Blessed salt is a sacramental. It is used in the blessing of holy water and in the exorcism of evil spirits. (The folk custom of tossing spilled salt over one’s left shoulder to drive away the Devil is a popular superstition derived from the Rite of Exorcism.) A mixture of blessed salt, holy water, and wine is used to reconsecrate an altar that has been desecrated. Placing salt on the tongue of those to be baptized was a frequent part of the catechumenate at the time of St. Augustine, and it is still an optional part of the Rite of Baptism today.
We’ve been using “the salt of the earth” not only to add savor to what we eat but also to purify and protect our bodies and souls for millennia. It’s great that science is catching up!
Blessing of Salt to Be Mixed with Holy Water (from the Roman Ritual)
We humbly ask you, almighty God: be pleased in your faithful love to bless this salt you have created, for it was you who commanded the prophet Elisha to cast salt into water, that impure water might be purified. Grant, O Lord, we pray, that, wherever this mixture of salt and water is sprinkled, every attack of the enemy may be repulsed and your Holy Spirit may be present to keep us safe at all times. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.