Make This Winter… Not Salty
“A few years ago, my dog, Grover, suddenly died of cancer,” said Mark Watson in an interview, “as did a couple of other dogs on the street. It was quite shocking to see three dogs died at around the same time.” Mark is a resident of Ottawa, Canada. He decided to research the possibly common cause behind what seemed to be a coincidental event. When he went to the veterinarian, he was told that the cancer might be caused by the toxicity from the de-icing salt used on the roads (EcoTraction, 2008).
“When pets go playing on the outside, their paws get irritated by the salt, and they lick it and digest the salt,” Mark presents his findings, “That’s how these chloride chemicals get into their body, even though their immune system is totally not prepared for that high concentration of toxicity.”
Road salt is not unfamiliar to us; white, blue, pink, these small particles could be seen everywhere in winter. In Canada, the government utilizes an average of five million tonnes of road salt across the country each year to ensure road safety. However, the impact of road salt goes far beyond than the detrimental effects to dogs. Environmentalists report that the runoff leaks into the surrounding environment, raising chloride levels in both ground and surface waters. This has adverse impacts on water quality and aquatic species and also leads to land degradation (Ramakrishna and Viraraghavan, 2005). In fact, this effect is so severe that road salt was labelled as “toxic” in an assessment report by Environment Canada (2001).
Apart from the environment, the road salt does harm to the city as well. Its corrosive power damages cars, bridges, highways and buildings. When cars are driving on the road, the salt solution could be sprayed up and then become stuck to the bottom of the vehicle, which could cause rust and break failure (AccuWeather, 2016). One of the most- trafficked bridge in Canada, Montreal’s Champlain Bridge, built only 50 years ago, was experiencing cracks, and surface deterioration and potential collapse due to corrosion by the use of road salt (Kay, 2014). In 2015 alone, more than $127 million was allocated to repair the bridge to ensure its safety. In addition, a replacement bridge is also under construction, which is estimated to cost about $3- to $5 billion.
There is no doubt that we need to pay a very high price for road salt, so why do we still use it? First, it comes down to the safety on the roads. Winter is the most dangerous season for drivers. “Each week more than a couple dozen Canadians get into their motor vehicle and do not emerge alive,” said Dr. Redelmeier from the University of Toronto. In his editorial in CMAJ, he shows that about 12% of traffic injuries and fatalities is caused by adverse road conditions in cold weather. These conditions could be improved tremendously by using road salt. A study released by American Highway Users Alliance (2014) shows that, with road salt, the collisions on winter roads could be reduced by up to 85%. This ensures that most vehicles are driving on open and clear roads, which is most important for ambulances, fire engines, police and other emergency vehicles to get to their destination safely and effectively.
Apart from the safety concern, considerations also include negative impacts to the economy due to lost activities. “It`s not just the safety side of things though,” said Prof. Nixon from the University of Iowa (UIOWA, 2016), “keeping the roads open and functioning is very important to our economy.” In January and February 2015, for example, Massachusetts experienced a series of snowstorms, making that its snowiest winter on record. The governor had to declare a statewide travel ban for all non-emergency vehicles, which cost Massachusetts about US$265 million a day, according to a study by American Highway Users Alliance (2014). It is not difficult to imagine that during winter months, if our government stopped using road salt, the city would be just like a huge truck stuck in the snow, unable to move forward.
The government is not unaware of the negative impacts of road salt. From 1994 to 1999, Environment Canada carried out a comprehensive assessment of road salt, and concluded that the use of road salt has notably adverse effects on the environment. This urged the Canadian government to develop a better management over the use of road salt. To the purpose, a group of different stakeholders was formed, which included road authorities, industry members and environmental NGOs (Environment Canada, 2017). They worked together for two years and released the Code of Practice in 2004.
The main goal of the Code is to reduce the negative effects while maintaining the safety on the road through improving practices in areas of salt storage, salt application, and snow disposal, etc (Environment Canada, 2017). For salt storage, practices include building coverage of salt piles, better drainage management and wash water collection to prevent uncontrolled releases. For salt application, practices include use of more advanced equipment, use of pre-wetting with salt brine, and use of road weather information support system. This allows the government to apply the minimum amount of salt at the right time to achieve the best result. For snow disposal, practices include drainage management, runoff collection to reduce uncontrolled releases. Road salt management is a slow process, but after the adoption of the Code, many cities have seen salt and cost savings and improved road safety (Environment Canada, 2013).
Other than adopting best practices, other alternatives were also considered in order to reduce salt usage, including beet juice, cheese brine, pickle brine, etc. Among these more environmentally friendly de-icers, beet juice is used most often. It is not the normal kind of beetroot that we see in the kitchen, but rather, sugar beet, another member of the beta vulgaris family. Cowansville, a town in south-central Quebec, recently turned to use beet juice as a de-icing material (Radio Canada, 2016). By mixing beet juice and road salt together, the solution becomes more effective, thus reducing salt usage and cost by around 30%. “Using beet juice is an ecological and economic choice,” said Mayor Arthur Fauteux of Cowansville. In general, beet-based de-icer is more expensive than regular road salt, but it can reduce the amount of salt released into the road and the environment (Fu, et al, 2012), and can lower the corrosion of municipal infrastructure and the environmental impact as well (La Presse, 2016) The City of Toronto has also been using beet solution for years, according to the Peter Noehammer, director of the city’s transportation services (TorontoStar, 2014). But its odd smell and higher price might be a major barrier to the wider spread of beet juice as a viable alternative.
On a smaller scale, the awareness of the negative impacts of road salt is growing among householders. As mentioned in the beginning of the article, the deeper Mark’s research progressed, the more harm he realised about road salt. However, at that time none of the de-icing products on the market was completely safe to the environment and animals. His crusade led him further into his research, and one volcanic-based mineral was found out to meet this criterion. This material was turned into a successful environmental friendly de-icer: EcoTraction, an award-winning product recommended in a CBC report (CBC News, 2013). Today, there are more than 46 de-icing products recognized by the United States Environmental Protection Agency for home and business use (USEPA, 2017). This trend is continuing as more reports about road salt are being made.
Road salt is a necessary evil for our countries. On one hand, it is vital to the economy and well-being of all individuals. It melts away the snow, saving lives on the road and making sure the society continues to function properly. But on the other hand, it does damage to the environment and puts pressure on maintaining vehicles and the city’s infrastructure. Through the political-economic lens, the government seems to struggle between the pros and cons of road salt. Just as Trevor Tenn, manager of road operations for the City of Toronto, said, it is the responsibility of the government to use road salt, but the cost that comes with it is out of their control (CBC, 2016). How can we find a balance between the benefits of citizens and the economy as a whole and the benefits of the environment? This question is difficult to answer for the government. Despite the huge discrepancy shown through the political-economic lens, when we switch to the governance analysis, the story becomes much brighter. With pressure on its shoulders, the government is also trying its best to reduce the use of road salt and impacts on the environment by developing and carrying out the best practice of road salt. In the meantime, other alternatives are also being tested with the hope to achieve an ideal balance. If we narrow the scale down to a smaller level, we can see minor achievements from individuals and companies seeking to find a compromise. Of course, this is not the end of the story, but there is hope to reach our goal, because everyone is witnessing efforts done by all parties to make things better.
AccuWeather (2016, December 15). Hidden hazards of road salt: Car corrosion can take a toll. Retrieved April 02, 2017, from http://www.accuweather.com/en/weather-news/winter-road-salt-necessary-but/22699332
American Highway Users Alliance (2014, January 29). Safe Winter Roads News Release. Retrieved March 30, 2017, from http://www.highways.org/2014/01/winter-roads-release/
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Fu, L., Omer, R., & Jiang, C. (2012). Field Test of Organic Deicers as Prewetting and Anti-Icing Agents for Winter Road Maintenance. Transportation Research Record: Journal of the Transportation Research Board, 2272, 130-135.
Kay, J. (2014, January 17). Why is Montreal’s Champlain Bridge, built within living memory, already on its last legs? Retrieved April 03, 2017, from http://news.nationalpost.com/full-comment/jonathan-kay-why-is-montreals-champlain-bridge-built-within-living-memory-already-on-its-last-legs
La Presse (2016, July 5). Du jus de betterave dans les rues de Cowansville | Michel Laliberté | En région. Retrieved April 02, 2017, from http://www.lapresse.ca/la-voix-de-lest/actualites/en-region/201607/05/01-4998253-du-jus-de-betterave-dans-les-rues-de-cowansville.php
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Ramakrishna, D. M., & Viraraghavan, T. (2005). Environmental Impact of Chemical Deicers – A Review. Water, Air, and Soil Pollution,166(1-4), 49-63.
TorontoStar (2014, January 06). In Toronto’s deep freeze, beet juice beats salt for melting ice. Retrieved April 03, 2017, from https://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2014/01/06/in_torontos_deep_freeze_beet_juice_beats_salt_for_melting_ice.html
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