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  • 26 Jan 2018 3:07 PM | Smart About Salt (Administrator)

    Salt all over the roads — it just wouldn't be a Canadian winter without it.

    In fact, we use about seven million tonnes of it each year to keep from slipping on ice and snow.

    But some experts are warning that it comes with a cost. The salt itself may be cheap, but it wreaks havoc on our roads, bridges, cars, and the environment. As salt corrodes metal, it has caused as much as $5 billion in damage to infrastructure in Canada, and is responsible for $3 billion in vehicle depreciation each year in Quebec and Ontario alone.

    Some cities are trying to solve the problem by using beet juice, or cheese brine.

    Salt also runs off the roads with the melted ice, and ends up in rivers, lakes and streams, causing damage to freshwater ecosystems, where increasing concentrations can harm reproduction of some types of animals or even kill them if it's high enough.

    Lake Simcoe, north of Toronto, has seen salt levels rising more quickly in recent years due to road salt use, said David Lembcke, manager of environmental science and monitoring for the Lake Simcoe Region Conservation Authority. Salt is also starting to get into our groundwater, which is often used as a drinking water source, he said.

    "That's the real challenge with salt, it loves water," Lembcke tells The Current's guest host Gillian Findlay. "Once it gets in water, there's just about nothing that gets it out of water… Really, when it comes to stopping it going in, it's stopping putting it down in the first place."

    There have even been cases of saltwater animals now living in Canada's freshwater ecosystems, because of the increased salt levels.

    "These are completely different ecosystems," said Lembcke. "It would be like finding a polar bear in the jungle."

    Lembcke is trying to persuade cities to use less salt. But Norm Parkes, the executive director of highway operations for B.C., said that though he's very aware of the downsides of salt — his organization keeps an eye on resulting infrastructure damage — it's hard to find replacements.

    "Salt is one of the most cost-effective ways of keeping traction and keeping our roads safe and of course safety is our number one priority," said Parkes. "You never know with innovation so never say never, but I think there will always be, in the short term, a place for the good use of salt and the judicious use of salt."

    Some areas are turning to innovative solutions. Calgary and some parts of B.C. are testing out beet juice as an alternative, and Wisconsin is spreading cheese brine on their roads.

    What all of these products have in common is that they melt the ice — but that's not necessary, said Stephen Coates, president of Earth Innovations. Their product Ecotraction, made from a volcanic mineral, sticks to the top of the ice without melting it, giving the ice the texture of sandpaper and providing traction.

    Coates said Ecotraction is more expensive than salt, but that less of it is needed to stop slips and slides. Plus, it stays in place even if the ice melts and refreezes with the weather. It also doesn't cause the expensive damage to infrastructure, he said.

    Mississauga, Ontario, is using the product in a pilot project in parks and pedestrian areas. But it's hard to shake the public from the idea that ice has to melt to make roads and sidewalks safe, said Coates.

    "That of course for us, on the marketing and advertising side, has been the big problem," Coates tells Findlay. "We're in a product category in stores that's called ice melters — and the one thing that we don't do is melt ice."

  • 22 Jan 2018 1:11 PM | Smart About Salt (Administrator)’s-addiction-to-road-salt-is-ruining-everything/ar-AAv1Iuo?li=AA521o&ocid=spartanntp

    This winter, Calgary has expanded its use of beet juice as a de-icing alternative to road salt. While slightly more expensive than salt, the mixture is more efficient, less toxic and less corrosive. 

    Nevertheless, despite a galaxy of relatively benign de-icing agents such as beet juice, this year cities across Canada will stubbornly continue to coat their roads with literal mountains of salt. Although salt remains the single cheapest way to keep snow and ice at bay, the economics make much less sense when considering the awesome scale of the damage wrought every year by the salt truck. 

    Below is a repost of an article that first ran in January, 2017. Since it was originally published, road salt has dissolved hundreds of kilograms of automotive steel, chapped untold numbers of dog’s paws and done at least $5 billion damage to Canadian infrastructure. 

    It’s doing billions of dollars in damage to cars

    In 2015, the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration pegged salt corrosion as the culprit in thousands of vehicle brake failures. That same year, Transport Canada issued a recall of 3,000 BMWs and Minis that had been parked at the Port of Halifax during the 2015 ice storm. But it wasn’t the ice that caused the recall; salt de-icing had damaged the vehicles so badly that they couldn’t steer properly. Way back in 1975, Transport Canada estimated that de-icing salts were causing $200 in damage per car, per year — the equivalent of $854 in 2017. Corrosion-resistant coatings have improved in the interim, but even when one-quarter that amount is applied to the roughly 14 million registered vehicles in Ontario and Quebec, the result is an extra $3 billion in vehicle depreciation each year.

    It’s ravaging our bridges and highways

    Crews are already at work on a $4.2-billion replacement for Montreal’s Champlain Bridge. The original, built in 1962, was brought to the edge of collapse in only 50 years because of salt corrosion. Salt brine seeping into concrete dramatically speeds up the corrosion of rebar within — and is heavily responsible for the poor state of bridges and highway overpasses across central Canada. Salt was a key contributor to the deadly 2006 collapse of the De La Concorde bridge in Laval, killing six people. The heavy salt diet on Toronto’s Gardiner Expressway is also one of the main reasons the elevated highway is often raining chunks of concrete; as rebar corrodes, the concrete around it crumbles. Tellingly, a series of 1930s-era stone carvings around Toronto’s Air Canada Centre have been permanently ruined by salty runoff from the nearby expressway.

    It’s not just roads

    After the Algo Centre Mall in Ontario’s Elliot Lake collapsed in 2012, killing two people, forensic analysts said the building’s steel supports looked like they had spent decades marinating in sea water. There were structural problems, to be sure, but the building was also hammered by 30 years of salty runoff from a rooftop parking garage. Road salt was also a contributing factor to lead contamination of drinking water in Flint, Mich. Water from the Flint River — made extra salty by road salt runoff — was eating into old pipes, dosing the population with lead. In 2011, well before the Flint disaster, Michigan’s Mackinac Center for Public Policy pegged the total damage done by road salt as high as $687 CDN per tonne. In Minnesota, damage estimates ranged between $1000 CDN and $5000 CDN per tonne. Canada uses at least seven million tonnes of salt per year, according to 2009 estimates by Environment Canada. Using the Mackinac Center estimate, that’s $4.8 billion in damage per year — $1 billion more than the $3.6 billion damage caused by the Fort McMurray wildfire.

    There’s a bunch of small, annoying problems, too

    Dalhousie University estimated that it costs it an extra $15,000 in cleaning and maintenance each year just to repair all the damage salt does to floors and baseboards — with similar costs presumably accruing to most of Canada’s other universities, museums and public buildings. Salt severely corrodes leather, reducing the lifespan of Canadian shoes and requiring extra cleaning. And wading through salt is brutal on dogs’ paws: Every winter brings a new wave of chapped paw cases to Canadian vets.

    Nature’s not too happy with this, either

    Hit a moose lately? There’s a chance that they wandered onto the road in order to lick up some road salt. Sodium is quite rare in nature, which is why moose — like humans — have pretty strong salt cravings. Much of Canada’s road salts also end up on forest floors, farm fields or water systems. In 2010, a report found that Frenchman’s Bay outside Pickering, Ont., was so polluted with road salt that it had been effectively cleared of fish.

    There’s a better way

    It’s generally too cold for road salt to be effective in the Prairies, so municipalities make do with sand, plowing and — in residential areas — simply having people drive on packed snow. But, the Prairies also regularly rack up Canada’s highest rates of highway deaths. Keeping roads ice-free is generally a good thing, but there are less-corrosive alternatives: calcium magnesium acetate, magnesium chloride and calcium chloride. But with salt costing only $50 per tonne, alternatives can cost between six to 18 times. It’s a lot of money for the already overstretched de-icing budgets of Canadian cities — but potentially a bargain when the total societal costs of salt are factored in.


  • 17 Jan 2018 2:00 PM | Smart About Salt (Administrator)

    Nobody knows how blue crabs got into Toronto’s Mimico Creek, but the more interesting question is how some of them survived in it.

    The blue crab is a saltwater creature, yet six apparently healthy ones were found in the freshwater creek in 2011. And while the water wasn’t salty enough for them to breed, it made for comfortable living. The crabs’ survival illustrates a growing problem for Ontario’s waterways: the excessive salting of roads, sidewalks, and parking lots has contaminated rivers, streams, and lakes.

    Road salt is a necessary evil, effective in deicing roads, sidewalks, and parking lots, and in improving safety at certain temperatures. But in Ontario, it’s common to use much more than necessary, which leads to crunchy sidewalks and runoff that makes lakes and rivers saltier.

    “We could probably reduce the amount of salt we’re applying by at least 25 per cent,” says Tim Van Seters, senior manager with the Toronto Region Conservation Authority. “We’re not going to get rid of it altogether. That’s not realistic to think — but we could certainly reduce it much more by putting in the right safeguards.”

    Salt pollution does much more than provide habitable waters for strange creatures. Increased salinity is harmful to many freshwater organisms, right down to the tiny invertebrates that underpin the entire food chain. Salt is also bad for many native plants and can contaminate groundwater.

    Van Seters has been watching Toronto’s rivers and creeks since 2002, when he started working as the water-quality coordinator for the TRCA. The authority monitors chlorides across the watershed (the chloride part of salt is what causes problems). Guidelines state that chronic exposure to chloride in freshwater streams is concerning above 120 milligrams per litre, and acute exposure above 640 milligramts per litre. Mimico Creek regularly tests above 25,000 milligrams per litre in the winter, according to Van Seters. (By comparison, seawater contains roughly 35,000 milligrams per litre.)

    But salt doesn’t only cause problems in winter, Van Seters says: chlorides can build up in groundwater and stormwater reservoirs, leading to year-round waterway contamination.

    Environment Canada completed a five-year study in 2001 that concluded road salt should be added to its list of toxic substances, although the department did not actually ban the use of road salt. It also stated that any measures taken in response to the study should be “based on optimization of winter road maintenance practices so as not to jeopardize road safety, while minimizing the potential for harm to the environment .”

    While provincial and municipal crews can be directed by policy, much snow removal is done by private contractors, which makes it difficult to monitor and control how much salt is applied to Ontario’s roads.

    “There’s quite a lot of parking lots in the GTA, and a huge amount of salt is applied to those areas. Anyone can go out in a truck, put salt in the back of their truck and spread it in whatever quantities they want,” says Van Seters. “There’s no regulation as to how that’s done, and there really should be. There should be some kind of certification or some kind of licensing requirement just as there is for pesticides or anything that might be toxic.”

    Van Seters says new salt-spreading equipment could also help: automated spreaders are capable of moderating the amount of salt laid down and can help contractors monitor their application rates.

    New Hampshire was the first U.S. state to use rock salt (that is, sodium chloride) on its roads, and it’s ahead of the curve when it comes to moderating use of the stuff, although it hasn’t turned to licensing. Instead, the state’s Department of Environmental Services offers Green SnowPro training for snow removal contractors; those who take it are protected against liability to slip-and-fall claims.

    “What we heard from the contractors is that it was very challenging for them to reduce given the liability concerns. One of the reasons they put down so much salt is to prevent liability in a slip-and-fall case,” says Ted Diers, administrator in the Department of Environmental Services’ water division. “What we did was we wrote a bill for our legislature that would give limited liability relief for people that have gone through our Green SnowPro training program.”

    If someone slips on a parking lot full of salt drifts, it’d be tough to argue that the landowner had been negligent. But more visible salt doesn’t necessarily mean more safety — especially if temperatures are cold enough to render it ineffective (sodium chloride works only between 0 C and -7 C).

    “Because putting salt down increases your safety, the assumption is that the more salt down, the more safety you’ll get — and that’s simply not true,” says Bill Thompson, manager of integrated watershed management with the Lake Simcoe Region Conservation Authority. “There’s a point beyond which putting more salt down doesn’t actually increase safety. It’s a waste of money. It’s an impact on the environment. And in some cases, it may cause pavement to become slipperier ... When you’ve got really high amounts of salt on some sidewalks you feel like you’re walking on marbles.”

    The conservation authority has worked with Smart About Salt — which began as a joint initiative between Landscape Ontario and the Region of Waterloo — to train some 200 area contractors in how to reduce their use of road salt safely. Thompson says the authority is also watching the New Hampshire situation closely, to see how well the legislation works. For now, though, it’s focused on education.

    A major part of the solution, says Lee Gould, executive director of Smart About Salt, is to educate people about winter safety gear and change their attitudes toward snow and ice. Snow tires and boots with good traction, for example, make slippery surfaces safer — and undercut the expectation that pavement should be visible 365 days a year.

    “There needs to be a lot of things that change. There needs to be a change in attitude and culture in terms of how we view winter so we’re taking the necessary precautions — snow tires, sensible footwear,” says Gould. “I think the expectation of having bare tarmac is unfortunate.”

  • 17 Jan 2018 8:51 AM | Smart About Salt (Administrator)

    According to We Energies, the combination of fog mixed with the abundant amount of road salt on area roadways sparked 12 utility pole fires. Officials say the combination can cause the electrical lines to heat up — sparking a fire.

    The We Energies Power Outage Map, as of about 12:10 a.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 10, was showing more than 700 without power in the Milwaukee area.

    Anyone can monitor the outages in southeast Wisconsin with the We Energies Outage Map. Officials say that map updates every 15 minutes.

  • 13 Jan 2018 7:28 AM | Smart About Salt (Administrator)

    The brief, two-day January thaw came to a bone-chilling end Friday afternoon.

    Ottawa residents who woke up to a balmy 11 C Friday morning found themselves driving home that afternoon through a mix of snow, freezing rain and ice pellets, with the temperature plunging to a low of -15 C.

    Environment Canada had the area under a “flash freeze” warning Friday and by Saturday night, the mercury was predicted to be down to a polar-like -26 C.

    “It’s a pretty dramatic swing in temperature,” acknowledged Environment Canada meteorologist Geoff Coulson.

    After a couple of days of warm, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico, a mass of frigid Arctic air swept in “and the door slammed shut,” he said.

    “We’re seeing another Arctic air mass and it’s another dominant one. We’ve got cold warnings out in the Prairies, cold warnings in northern Ontario. It’s not necessarily the depth of cold that we dealt with last week, but it’s still certainly well below normal.”

    Ottawa should escape the heavier snowfall expected to the south, however. Kingston and Cornwall could see up to 20 cm of snow, whereas Coulson expects Ottawa’s accumulation will be between five and 10 cm by the time the snow ends around mid-day Saturday.

    About 300 to 400 City of Ottawa plows and salters were set to hit the street Friday, their task complicated somewhat by the deep pools and puddles in many areas. City workers — and many private citizens — worked Friday to clear ice-clogged catch basins to drain the flooding.

    “Today is a bit of a challenge because we have a lot of standing water on the roadways,” said Bryden Denyes, the city’s area manager for core roads. “We’re doing our best to ensure we get most of that off the road … The quick temperature drop does pose a challenge, but staff are monitoring that.”

    Road salt loses its effectiveness at temperatures below -18 C. In that case, the city pre-soaks the salt which kickstarts the melting process, and adds grit to the mix that can help with traction.

    Driving could be pretty rough on some smaller side streets when ridges of slush are frozen solid by the deep freeze. The city will use road graders if necessary to scrape the ridges away, Denyes said.

    The thaw also has created dangerous and unstable ice conditions on waterways, warns the Rideau Valley Conservation Authority. 

    In some areas, the thaw has led to an ice break up, which raises the potential of downstream ice jams and flooding. In other areas, rain and meltwater has pooled on the surface, and though that will soon refreeze when the temperature plummets, it will take several days of cold weather before the ice is safe enough to walk on again, the conservation authority warns.

    The rapid temperature fluctuation isn’t just hard on people and drivers. Buildings and roads take a beating, too.

    Small foundation cracks can quickly widen with repeated freeze-thaw cycles, which is why it’s important to do regular maintenance and patch them, Coulson said.

    “In terms of pipes freezing, we are getting into some pretty cold temperatures by Saturday night and Sunday morning. It’s certainly something to be aware of. The number of freeze-thaw cycles we’ve gone through in the last few days, we’ve got a lot of water main breaks — a lot more than we saw last year, which was a notably milder winter,” he said.

    The temperature will stay low into next week, with daytime highs of around -10 C and overnight lows dipping to -16 C.

  • 12 Jan 2018 6:16 AM | Smart About Salt (Administrator)

    There were so many smash-ups on Edmonton roads during a bone-chilling Thursday morning, Edmonton police compared the freezing commute to a video game race gone wrong.

    Environment Canada issued an extreme cold warning for Edmonton and surrounding areas, and the freezing temperatures turned local roads into skating rinks.

    Slippery conditions were to blame for numerous fender benders across the city, and police are encouraging drivers to exercise caution. 

    Between 6 a.m. and 10 a.m., police responded to five injury collisions and 70 property damage collisions.

    By 3:30 p.m., a total of 191 collisions had been reported to police. That included 10 hit-and-run collisions, 11 injury collisions and 170 property damage collisions, police said.

    "Edmonton is not a level in Mario Kart," EPS said in a post to their public Facebook page. "Our roads are not race tracks.

    "There are no cute penguins. There is no winner. And if you slip off the road, a Koopa won't lift your vehicle and put you back on track within seconds.

    "It's about safety, patience, and planning. Let's all stay safe and warm today."

    Police posted a similar message to Twitter.

    'Slow down, drive for the road conditions'

    There were at least two major multi-vehicle collisions in the city early Thursday. Both calls came in around 7 a.m.

    Emergency crews were called to a seven-vehicle crash on Whitemud Drive, just east of 111th Street, plus two separate collisions nearby.

    Police were also called to a five-vehicle smash-up southbound on Groat Road, near 105th Avenue. A vehicle lost control on ice, spun around and collided head-on with other vehicles on the road, police said. Minor injuries were reported.

    In addition to the multi-car crash, there were two other crashes on Groat Road, said Carolin Maran, a spokesperson for Edmonton police.

    In total, a dozen vehicles were involved in collisions on Groat Road alone, she said.

    Ice on the Quesnell Bridge resulted in a number of collisions starting around 7:30 a.m., said Maran.

    Sanding operation underway

    "We've been sanding overnight and will continue to work throughout the day," said Janet Tecklenborg, director of infrastructure operations with the City of Edmonton.

    About 100 trucks will be out on Thursday, focusing primarily on main roads and intersections, in preparation for the afternoon traffic rush, she said.

    The cold weather provides particular challenges, said Tecklenborg.

    "The moisture can create an icy slick on the road." she said. Salt can be used to melt ice but only works to –12 C, and calcium chloride isn't used when temperatures go below –20 C, added Tecklenborg.

    "What we are using right now is mostly sand, to be able to address issues and increase the friction on the road," she said.

    When roads are bare, that doesn't always work. Tecklenborg reminded drivers they can't compare driving on bare roads in winter to driving on bare roads in summer.

    "We need to drive cautiously," she said.

    n Arctic air mass moving across the Prairies has put much of the province into a deep freeze.

    An Arctic air mass moving across the Prairies has put much of the province into a deep freeze.

    An extreme cold advisory covers an area stretching from Wood Buffalo in the north to Waterton National Park in the south.

    The cold weather is expected to stick around for a few days, with the wind chill making it feel as cold as –40 until the weekend.

    Due to the extreme cold temperatures on Thursday morning, Greater St. Albert Catholic Schools has cancelled all buses in the Legal area. All buses for the district in Morinville and St. Albert will be running.

    Buses have been cancelled for children attending Elk Island Public Schools due to extremely cold temperatures. The schools will remain open with regular classes Thursday for students who can brave the cold weather.

    Extreme cold warnings are issued when very cold temperatures or wind chill creates an elevated risk to health such as frostbite and hypothermia.

    "Extreme cold puts everyone at risk," said Environment Canada.

    Albertans braving the cold are advised to watch for cold related symptoms: shortness of breath, chest pain, muscle pain and weakness, numbness and colour change in fingers and toes

    "Cover up. Frostbite can develop within minutes on exposed skin, especially with wind chill."

  • 11 Jan 2018 6:27 AM | Smart About Salt (Administrator)

    Andrew Hardy, president of CUPE local 1190, believes the recent treacherous conditions on New Brunswick highways are the result of government cuts to the Department of Transportation that started back in 2011.

    Two storms over the holidays, followed by extremely cold temperatures, have led to the build-up of what is called "anchor ice" on highways across the province.

    The icy conditions have led to many accidents and prompted complaints from across New Brunswick.

    If the snowplows had been out earlier and more often, the highways would not have formed a layer of ice that was essentially salt-resistant below certain temperatures, Hardy said.

    And snowplow operators aren't to blame, he said. Hardy pointed to cuts in the past six years that he said have resulted in 55 fewer snow-clearing machines and 70 fewer plow operators.

    'They cut the alternate operators'

    Hardy said the biggest impact of the cuts has been the elimination of spare or alternate snowplow drivers who can take over when the regular crews have reached their limit of 16 hours.

    "If we had the spare operators we could be out there 24-7… we could have a couple [drivers] going up and down the road to keep up with the storm until those other men and women are rested and come back in at four o'clock in the morning."

    Hardy said the reality is that plows are often taken off the highways at 11 p.m. and aren't back on the highways until 4 a.m.

    There's a lot of accumulation that happens between 11 p.m. and four in the morning and if you've got traffic going over that it packs it and it turns into ice. You're seeing the conditions today."

    Hardy also believes snowplow drivers should be called in to start clearing highways sooner.

    "We should be out there quicker — before the storm is full force."

    Delay in clearing the highways contributes to the problem of ice, which is hard to get at below certain temperatures.

    Minister blames past government

    Hardy said he met with the director of operations for the Department of Transportation on Nov. 21 and asked that alternate snowplow operators be rehired in all areas of the province.

    Transportation Minister Bill Fraser said Wednesday that the department is still trying to rebuild after cuts by the previous government. 

    "We simply don't have the resources in place right at this time to do everything that the CUPE president is suggesting," Fraser said.

    The minister said new "staffing level targets" have been set and the department is recruiting.

    "Recruitment has been a challenge due to the cuts that were made by the previous government.

    "Potential employees — some of them are reluctant to sign on to a job where they know cuts have been made in previous years."

    Fraser said that since the Liberals took office, the winter maintenance budget has been increased by 15 per cent, and in the past two years 45 new snowplows have been purchased.

    Less salt on highways?

    Hardy said his snowplow operators are also concerned by efforts by the Transportation Department to reduce the amount of salt that is applied to highways in an effort to make it consistent across the province.

    "The cuts in some of the districts was going to be so drastic we said, 'No, don't do that, don't go down to that because you're going to have problems and you're seeing it now.'"

    Hardy pointed to the Saint John district as an example, saying officials wanted to cut the blast rate for plows, which is the amount of salt released on icy corners, steep hills and intersections, by half.

    Fraser agreed that the blast rate has been "recalibrated," so it is consistent across the province, but he also insisted there have been no cuts to the volume of salt or sand being applied to roads.

    He said drivers have "full authority" to use as much salt or sand as they see fit, although Hardy said that would come as news to plow operators.

    "That's not fact — they're told what to put on," Hardy said. "Their trucks are calibrated. If they do have leeway they don't know that."

    Beet juice being investigated

    Fraser said he has asked department staff to investigate the use of beet juice as an additive to make road salt more effective.

    "That's something that we're going to consider," he said.

    Brun-Way Highway Operations Inc., the company that manages and maintains the highway from Longs Creek to the Quebec border and Route 95 from Woodstock to the U.S. border tried adding beet juice to its road salt a few years ago.

    In an email, spokesperson Felicia Murphy said the beet juice was not intended to replace salt but rather to "help the salt's effectiveness in lower temperatures.

    Murphy said it did not have the desired result.

    "We used it with lower temperatures, and yes it worked, but it only worked about 30 minutes quicker than a salt brine mixture we have used as well to pre-wet salt applications," Murphy wrote.

    She said Brun-Way has just begun another trial using a product called Pro-Melt Mag 30, but there are no results on its effectiveness yet.

  • 11 Jan 2018 6:25 AM | Smart About Salt (Administrator)

    It’s white and granular and gets spread heavily every winter. We see it pouring onto highways and staining our boots. It’s familiar. And it’s toxic.

    It’s road salt, and it’s having a devastating impact on the freshwater ecosystems of the Great Lakes.

    Road salt, the most common being sodium chloride, dissolves easily in water and flows from roads and parking lots into the sewers, and then into our creeks, wetlands, rivers and lakes. In the winter and spring in the Great Lakes region, salt levels in groundwater and surface water regularly reach levels that are dangerous for wildlife.

    WWF-Canada’s recent Watershed Reports showed very high threats from pollution to the Great Lakes watershed. In this region, with its dense network of pavement and people, excessive use of salt in winter is responsible for the toxic conditions damaging aquatic life.

    Freshwater fish can’t survive in water that’s too salty, and salty water kills eggs and larvae of wildlife such as mussels. Frogs and turtles die when there’s too much salt in lakes and rivers.

    Disturbingly, there are reports that salt-water species such as blue crabs introduced into Ontario lakes and rivers are able to survive because of all the salt we’ve dumped into the environment.

    This graphic shows the measurement of Cooksville Creek in Mississauga, Ont., after the first significant snowfall in the Greater Toronto Area on Dec. 11, 2017. Road salt was spread during the wintry conditions and the effects on the creek were evident within hours. The deeper pink background area shows where salt reaches unhealthy levels for aquatic life. Because wintry conditions have continued since that day in mid-December, salt levels have remained very high and unsafe for wildlife in the creek for weeks now.

    Road salt also ends up in our drinking water. Although Health Canada does not set a maximum concentration for chloride in drinking water, in some places in Ontario, such as Waterloo Region, salt concentrations can reach the level where tap water tastes salty.

    World Wildlife Fund Canada is working to achieve a measurable reduction in road-salt use in Ontario over the next three years to improve the health of our freshwater ecosystems. To achieve this, we are:

    • Partnering with businesses to reduce salt on their properties. Seventy per cent of road salt contamination in the Great Lakes watershed comes from private property, often large parking lots such as the ones around big-box stores. We’re partnering with property-management groups and creating tools to help them reduce their salt use this winter.
    • Encouraging training and certification. We’re working with the Smart About Salt Council in Ontario to promote certification for those who salt roads and parking lots. Through collaborations with Landscape Ontario, we are engaging contractors to reduce the salt they spread. Using more salt isn’t better or safer, and education will help balance public safety with environmental concerns.
    • Working for policy change. We’re advocating for a policy change that will require commercial enterprises and municipalities in Ontario that use road salt  to undergo training and certification. With our partners, including the Lake Simcoe Region Conservation Authority, we’re advocating for an Ontario-wide road-salt reduction strategy.

    The salt spread on our roads and parking lots doesn’t melt away with the snow: It accumulates in our creeks, rivers and other water systems. We must recognize the damage it does to freshwater wildlife, and take steps to stop the harm.

  • 09 Jan 2018 9:41 AM | Smart About Salt (Administrator)

    As part of the SASC participation at the Landscape Ontario 2018 Congress we're offering a 40% discount on both in-class and online training.

    Sign-up today online at or visit our booth at the Main Entrance (end of aisle 1500) at the Toronto International Congress Centre.

  • 08 Jan 2018 4:58 PM | Smart About Salt (Administrator)

    January 8, 2018

    Find related stories on NSF's Environmental Research and Education (ERE) programs at this link. Also find related stories on NSF's Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) Program site.

    Across North America, streams and rivers are becoming saltier, thanks to road deicers, fertilizers and other salty compounds that humans indirectly release into waterways. At the same time, freshwater supplies are becoming more alkaline or basic, the "opposite" of acidic.

    Salty, alkaline freshwater can create big problems for drinking water supplies, urban infrastructure and natural ecosystems. For example, the well-documented water crisis in Flint, Michigan, occurred when the city switched its primary water source to the Flint River in 2014; the river's high salt load combined with chemical treatments made the water corrosive and caused lead to leach from water pipes.

    A new study led by National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded researchers is the first to assess long-term changes in freshwater salinity and pH -- a measure of how acidic or alkaline something is -- at the continental scale.

    "Such water quality issues as sewage, wastewater and nutrient loading are being addressed," said Tom Torgersen, director of NSF's Water Sustainability and Climate program, which funded the research. "But management of water quality impacts remains a challenge because of our increasing population, the size of our built infrastructure and other factors."

    A half-century of data

    The analysis draws from data recorded at 232 monitoring sites across the country over the past 50 years and shows significant increases in both salinization and alkalinization. The results also suggest a close link between the two properties, with different salt compounds combining to do more damage than any one salt could do on its own.

    "This research demonstrates the value of long-term data in identifying potential threats to valuable freshwater resources," said John Schade, an NSF Long-Term Ecological Research program director. "Without such long-term efforts, widespread and significant degradation of water quality by human activities would remain unknown. Now we can begin to unravel the causes and develop strategies to mitigate potential effects on the environment and public health."

    The analysis, which is published in this week's issue of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, has implications for freshwater management and salt regulation strategies in the United States, Canada and beyond. Researchers at the University of Maryland (UMD), the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, the University of Connecticut (UConn), the University of Virginia and Chatham University co-authored the study.

    "We created the term 'Freshwater Salinization Syndrome' because we realized that it's a suite of effects on water quality," said Sujay Kaushal, a biogeochemist at UMD and lead author of the study. "Many people assume that when you apply salt to roads and other surfaces it just gets washed away and disappears. But salt accumulates in soils and groundwater and takes decades to get flushed out."

    Changes in rivers across the country

    The researchers documented sharp chemical changes in many of the country's major rivers, including the Mississippi, Hudson, Potomac, Neuse, Canadian and Chattahoochee rivers. Many of these rivers supply drinking water for nearby cities and towns, including some of the most densely populated urban centers along the Eastern Seaboard.

    According to Kaushal, most freshwater salinization research has focused on sodium chloride, better known as table salt, which is also the dominant chemical in road deicers.

    But salt has a much broader definition, encompassing any combination of positively and negatively charged ions that dissociate in water. Some of the most common positive ions found in salts -- including sodium, calcium, magnesium and potassium -- can have damaging effects on freshwater at higher concentrations.

    "These 'cocktails' of salts can be more toxic than just one salt, as some ions can displace and release other ions from soils and rocks, compounding the problem," said Kaushal. "Ecotoxicologists are just beginning to understand this."

    The study is the first to simultaneously account for multiple salt ions in freshwater across the United States and southern Canada.

    The results suggest that salt ions, damaging in their own right, are driving up the alkalinity of freshwater as well.

    Significant increase in salinity

    Over the time period covered by the study, the researchers concluded that 37 percent of the drainage area of the contiguous United States experienced a significant increase in salinity. Alkalinization, which is influenced by a number of different factors in addition to salinity, increased by 90 percent.

    "Our study is the first to document a link between increased salinization and alkalinization at the continental scale," said scientist and study co-author Gene Likens of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies and UConn. "Until now, we didn't fully appreciate the role that different salts play in altering the pH of streams and rivers of our country. Salt content and pH are fundamental aspects of water chemistry, so these are major changes to the properties of freshwater."

    The causes of increased salt in waterways vary from region to region, Kaushal said.

    In the snowy Mid-Atlantic and New England, road salt applied to maintain roadways in winter is a primary culprit. In the heavily agricultural Midwest, fertilizers -- particularly those with high potassium content -- also make major contributions. In other regions, mining waste and weathering of concrete, rocks and soils releases salts into adjacent waterways.

    "We found that the pH of some rivers started increasing in the 1950s and '60s -- decades before the implementation of acid rain regulations," said Michael Pace, an environmental scientist at the University of Virginia and a co-author of the study. "We also observed increased salt concentrations in the Southeast, where they don't apply road salts. These surprising trends presented a puzzle that our team worked to solve."

    In the water-starved desert Southwest, where salt concentrations have historically been very high, Kaushal and his colleagues documented an overall decrease in salinity over time.

    The researchers attribute the decrease to a variety of factors, including changes in land and water use, coupled with an effort on the part of Western state and local governments to reduce salt inputs and improve water resource management strategies. For example, in 1973, the seven Western states included in the Colorado River Basin created the Colorado River Basin Salinity Control Forum to support salinity control efforts.

    New salt pollution management strategies needed

    Kaushal noted that many strategies for managing salt pollution already exist. Evidence suggests that brines can be more efficient than granulated salt for deicing roads, yielding the same effect with less overall salt input. Pre- salting before a major snow event can also improve results.

    "Not all salts are created equal in terms of their ability to melt ice at certain temperatures," Kaushal added. "Choosing the right salt compounds for the right conditions can help melt snow and ice more efficiently with less salt input, which would go a long way toward solving the problem."

    Kaushal also said that many Mid-Atlantic and Northeastern cities and states have outdated and inefficient salt-spreading equipment that is overdue for an upgrade.

    The researchers note similar issues with the application of fertilizers in agricultural settings. In many cases, applying the right amount of fertilizer at the right time in the season can help reduce the overall output of salts into nearby streams and rivers.

    And more careful urban development strategies -- primarily building farther from waterways and designing better storm water drainage systems -- can help reduce the amount of salt washed away from weathered concrete, the scientists say.

    The study co-authors believe there's also a need to monitor and replace aging water pipes throughout the country that have been affected by corrosion and scaling, or the buildup of mineral deposits and microbial films. Such pipes are particularly vulnerable to saltier, more alkaline water, which can increase the release of toxic metals and other contaminants.

    "The trends we are seeing show that we need to consider the issue of salt pollution and take it seriously," Kaushal said. "These factors are something we need to address to provide safe water now and for future generations."


    Media Contacts
    Cheryl Dybas, NSF, (703) 292-7734, email:
    Matthew Wright, University of Maryland, (301) 405-9267, email:

    The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering. In fiscal year (FY) 2017, its budget is $7.5 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and other institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 48,000 competitive proposals for funding and makes about 12,000 new funding awards.

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