Posted by George Wimmer | Environment

The environmental concern of road salt

Road salt is not the most exciting topic for many, but for those who live where it snows and roads can become encased in ice, it has been a lifesaver. As a Mayor, I would drive through my city to check our roads during snowstorms to ensure they were safe for morning commutes and school buses. Over 2000 lives are lost, and icy roads and snow cause over 200,000 injuries.

It all started in the United States in 1938 when New Hampshire experimented with granular sodium chloride. The winter of 1941 to 1942 saw 5,000 tons nationwide on our roads. Depending on winter conditions in recent years, we have used between 10 to 20 million tons of salt.

So what is road salt? It is the raw form of table salt. The rock salt is mined and has impurities that can give it a ‘dirty’ appearance. Road salt works by lowering the temperature at which water freezes and must be applied wet. The salty brine mixture that gets spread on roads has saved lives. It has also caused significant environmental concerns.

road salt on a highway

The chloride in road salt does not breakdown. When that liquid brine or the solid salt pours on roads or sidewalks, it eventually gets washed away. It can end up along streets, yards, or fields; it harms pets and wildlife. Then either seeps into groundwater or our lakes and streams. That sodium chloride is corrosive, not only to ice, but it eats away at roads, bridges, and vehicles.

Everything from cheese brine, pickle, and beet juice get used on icy roads, but they all need sodium chloride to work. Another issue with these alternative mixtures is that the organic material ends up in lakes and streams and reduces oxygen levels causing aquatic life to die. This article has a lot of bad news about ways to clear roads and save lives so far.

A possible solution is potassium acetate. First, it melts ice at lower temperatures than road salt. That sodium chloride stops working when it gets colder than 15 degrees Fahrenheit. Secondly, potassium acetate does breakdown naturally overtime. Lastly, less is needed to clear the same amount of road miles. The known negatives so far are it does kill some aquatic insects when it too gets washed into our waterways and does cost more.

At best, potassium acetate might be a stepping stone to a better solution, but it is progress. Thousands of lives and our environment hang in the balance of figuring this one out.

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