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Winter is Coming: Is Road Salt Contaminating Your Tap Water?

Posted on February 5, 2019 by

When I moved to Wisconsin from Virginia I knew there would be a few things I would have to get used to: the lack of mountains (seriously Madison is so flat I can see halfway to Chicago from my 12 story apartment building), the midwest kindness (move over southern hospitality Wisconsinites will bless your heart AND shovel your driveway), winter (seriously was unaware I was moving into an actual polar vortex), and…road salt.

Yes, road salt! The necessary evil is everywhere – leaving its (literal) mark on my dark hardwood floors, my faux suede heels, and my tap water. You see, I’ve been interested in water quality since 2013 when I lived just outside the Chesapeake Bay. Now every time I move, I’m sure to check out the local water quality and buy an appropriate water filter. I use this super easy tool to check out problems with my local water distribution system. A quick search of Wisconsin’s water reveals the reason for the strong chlorine taste coming from my tap water – road salt contamination.

How harmful can some extra NaCl be you ask?

Well, it’s worse than you’d think. A frequently cited study by Ali Akbar Sohanghpurwala claims that each ton of road salt causes around $1,500 worth of corrosion damage to bridges, vehicles and the environment. Across the U.S. we use 20 million tons of road salt every winter. How could salt rack up $30 billion worth of damages? 

Well, let us take a look at damage to infrastructure first. Chloride deteriorates concrete on bridge decking and parking garage structures, and damages reinforcing rods, compromising structural integrity. It damages vehicle parts like brake linings, frames, and bumpers. It impacts railroad crossing warning equipment and power line utilities causing shorting of transmission lines, and wooden pole fires.

Infrastructure aside, road salt is toxic to small aquatic life. And just like in Virginia, fishing and recreation are a significant part of Wisconsin’s economy. (Just ask the dozens camping and ice fishing on Lake Mendota). Wildlife recreation in the state brings in $5.5 billion a year, and 173,000 Wisconson jobs are connected to the Great Lakes.

Not only does it have a toxic effect on fish, but sodium also has human health effects – being especially dangerous to those with high blood pressure. While chlorine is not toxic in low doses it does affect the smell and taste of water.

But if you still aren’t convinced, think about your pets! According to the ASPCA, road salt can cause negative effects to your pets from indirect ingestion (drinking snowmelt, licking wet paws after a walk) or skin exposure.

What can we do about it?

But Izzy, you say! How else will we keep our roads safe during these winter storms? I’m so glad you asked 🙂  Sodium Chloride doesn’t even really work when temps get under 15 degrees Fahrenheit, but yes we still need road salt. Municipalities in Madison and Minnesota are implementing “smart salting” practices, using the minimum amount of salt necessary. To learn more about how you can start coordinating with your state’s drinking water programs on roads and road salt, contact Deirdre Mason of ASDWA at dmason@asdwa.org

If you or your business uses a private winter maintenance company, check with your state to see if the company is certified in road salt application. And if you apply salt yourself, here are some tips to be sure you are doing everything you can to protect yourself, your property, local wildlife, and your family pets:

  • Only use what you need! According to the WI Salt Wise Partnership , the right amount of salt looks like this:
  • Never toss salt on top of snow! Shovel and remove snow and ice first.
  • Remember that salt is not effective in temps below 15 degrees.
  • If you hire a private company to help with winter maintenance, encourage them to get certified through Madison’s Winter Salt Certification Program or your local program.

Drive safe, drink safe, and try to stay warm!

Izzy

@FreshwaterFutur

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