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The Green Life: Does Road Salt Harm the Environment?

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March 04, 2011

Does Road Salt Harm the Environment?

When this winter's "snowpocalypse" saw many cities buried in snow, road-maintenance crews responded with the usual solution: Apply road salt and lots of it.

Between 15 and 30 million tons of de-icing salt are used annually. Unfortunately, the salt doesn't just stay on the highways. As snow melts, it can reach streams, lakes, and groundwater supplies. High salt concentrations can be harmful to plants and wildlife, and contamined drinking water creates a health problem for people on sodium-restricted diets.

Alternatives to road salt can be more expensive, and some substitutes carry their own costs: Urea and calcium magnesium acetate can hurt aquatic ecosystems. Until a perfect solution is found, road crews can use reduce their salt use by pre-wetting the salt, which helps it stick to roads, and by "anti-icing," applying salt before a storm to prevent snow from sticking.

--Della Watson

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