Does Road Salt Assault Our Drinking Water?

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by Michele S. Byers, executive director, New Jersey Conservation Foundation

Driving on snowy roads this winter could raise your blood pressure, but not just due to slipping and sliding! New data suggests that road salt used by many highway departments across the country to melt snow and ice is likely elevating salt levels in our drinking water.

Sodium can cause cardiovascular, kidney, and liver diseases, and is directly linked to high blood pressure.  Many of us work hard to reduce salt in our diets.  Campbell’s Soup even cut the sodium content in Spaghetti-Os by as much as 35 percent!

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The chloride in salt corrodes metals, including everything from car bodies to the rebar that reinforces the concrete in our bridges and roadways.  At high enough levels, salt is also toxic to wildlife.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) says 15 million tons of salt are applied to American roads each year.  Rock salt comes from mines in several states, including New York.

Due to the problems caused by salt runoff, many states are turning to alternative de-icing chemicals like calcium chloride (which can cost three times more than rock salt), magnesium chloride (five times more), and potassium acetate (eight times more), to name a few.  Many of these alternatives are also effective at lower temperatures than rock salt.

Concerns about rock salt are not new.  But new studies, like the U.S. Geological Survey’s Chloride in Groundwater And Surface Water in Areas Underlain by the Glacial Aquifer System, Northern United States, are adding detailed data that points to road salt as a source of surface and groundwater pollution in areas with high road density.  The USGSD study also found that the density of roads in and around sampled watersheds was a significant factor in the chloride concentrations in water.

Watersheds with a lot of roads are as “Jersey” as the tomato, and many of our waters are impacted by salt.  This should not be a surprise, since it sure seems as if our state has more roads per person than most other places on the planet!

There are a relatively limited number of effective de-icing chemicals, and with local, county and state budgets tighter than ever, it takes creativity and long-term thinking to look beyond salt.  But it can be done.

For example, driving in Massachusetts, you will see signs designating “no salt/spray zones” along highways near streams and water bodies.  Many towns are turning to “brining,” which uses liquid melting agents that are more effective at preventing ice from bonding to road surfaces in the first place. And, depending on weather conditions, you may be more likely to see trucks setting down de-icing agents before a storm, when smaller amounts have a greater impact.

We can all help, too, this winter. First, shovel as much snow as you can off your sidewalks and driveways and let the sun work for you.  To prevent ice, use some of the alternatives, including calcium magnesium acetate, potassium acetate, calcium chloride or magnesium chloride. Remember, a little bit of these products goes a long way. Lastly, avoid using any de-icing products near wetlands, streams or other waterways.

Please consult New Jersey Conservation Foundation’s website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at info@njconservation.org, if you would like more information about conserving New Jersey’s precious land and natural resources.


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