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Is Salting the Roads Harmful to the Environment?

Is Salting the Roads Harmful to the Environment?

This is a common scene in the Northern states and Canada, the salt truck spreading rock salt on the roads. According to Slate, more than 20 million tons of the stuff is spread each year, 13 times more than is used by the entire food processing industry. According to the USGS,

“Salt is an inexpensive, widely available, and effective ice control agent. It does, however, become less effective as the temperature decreases below about 6.5° C to 9.5° C (15° F to 20° F). at lower temperatures, more salt would have to be applied to maintain higher brine concentrations to provide the same degree of melting. Most winter snowstorms and ice storms happen when temperatures are between 4° C and 0° C (25° F and 32° F), the range in which salt is most effective.”

Salt works by lowering the freezing point of water. When sprinkled on ice, it makes a brine with the film of surface water, which lowers the freezing point and starts melting the ice that the brine is in contact with- to a point. The lower the temperature, the more salt you need, so it is less useful below -10C (15F). That’s why in a lot of really cold places they use sand on top of the snow, and why places like Quebec make snow tires mandatory- they spend a lot of time driving on top of snow instead of road.

The environmental costs are huge

The problem with salt is that it has nowhere to go but down, into the groundwater and then into rivers and streams. A study in Pickering, Ontario (just east of Toronto) found that the salt was flowing into Frenchman’s Bay, where it is affecting the fish population. According to the Globe and Mail,Environment Canada has recognized that salt has adverse impacts on wildlife, plants, water and soil, and in 2001 considered adding it to the country’s list of the most toxic substances….”It’s a toxic material and yet we continue to throw it with gay abandon on our roads.”

Rust never sleeps

Salt is corrosive, and leads to the premature deterioration of infrastructure. For every dollar spent on salt, there appears to be about four dollars in hidden costs for repairs to roads and bridges. Mark Cornwell of Michigan’s Mackinac Center notes: “However, the enormous hidden cost is not immediately seen, but is added to the deferred maintenance problems which will be paid in future budgets. Over the next 10 years, Michigan will theoretically spend $5 billion on road salt and its correlated depreciation to infrastructure investment.”

According to Environment Canada, road salt causes $ 143 in depreciation every year for every car on the salty road.

What are the alternatives?

The most important one is to teach people how to drive. I have noted previously. Road salt destroys roads, shortens the lives of cars, kills vegetation and now, we know that it is harming our watersheds. Better alternatives would be to reduce speed limits in winter, make snow tires mandatory as they do in Quebec, and provide better public transit and other alternatives to driving, instead of destroying the environment to satisfy a need for speed.

Alternatives included beet juice, cheese brine and even garlic salt. But the best thing we can do is just slow down.


Article by Lloyd Alter

CC BY 2.0 Kate Ter Haar on Flickr


Road Salt is Affecting Aquatic Life
Wisconsin Uses Cheese Brine to De-Ice Roads
Salt vs. Brine
4 Winter Dangers That Can Be Deadly for Seniors
3 Dangers to Avoid on Your Next Road Trip

Read more: Environment, Nature, News & Issues

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+ add your own
7:08AM PST on Feb 12, 2015

Yes, we have the same problem in Poland. In Sweden they use sand, which is cheaper and less harmful.

7:04AM PST on Feb 12, 2015

thanks for sharing :)

1:35AM PDT on Jun 7, 2014


11:36PM PDT on Mar 12, 2014

Thank you.

11:36PM PDT on Mar 12, 2014

Thank you.

6:19AM PST on Mar 8, 2014

the ammonia in cat urine also works. used cat litter works double duty by creating traction too

10:13PM PST on Mar 6, 2014

The effects of salt should be obvious. Living on the coast or visiting the coastline for any length of time will show on a car. Anything that is exposed to the environment will be leached into the ground, plants and ground water. An example could be coal or fertilizers. Transportation can't stop because of snow and ice but alternate and safer means of de-icing need to be explored.

8:05AM PST on Mar 6, 2014

Of course salting is harmful, how much damage it is doing to our pet's paws.

5:35AM PST on Mar 6, 2014

Thanks for sharing :)

1:53PM PST on Mar 5, 2014

I had never though about it...

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Interesting article. Thank you for caring and sharing.

great info thanks. playing with my animals helps me.

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