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Road salt can contaminate water, damage infrastructure

Posted at 5:03 AM, Jan 17, 2020
and last updated 2020-01-17 11:39:52-05

KANSAS CITY, Mo.  — Where there's snow or sleet, salt isn't far behind.

Each year, Americans spread 48 billion pounds of salt on roadways, according to reporting by USA Today.

"We know we need to get people moving throughout our city during a snow event, and we know salt can be really effective at helping us with that, so there are lots of things to balance," Maggie Green of Kansas City, Missouri, Public Works said.

It's a balance because all of that sodium chloride doesn't just disappear. It goes into our water and soil, with major consequences for plants and wildlife.

A U.S. Geological Survey study found average chloride concentrations in urban streams are increasing rapidly, often exceeding toxic levels.

Scientists say road salt even contributed to the Flint water crisis. The Flint River had a high concentration of chloride, which corroded the city's lead pipes and led to a high level of the metal in the water.

On top of all of that, a Washington State professor has estimated the U.S. spends $5 billion a year to repair damages to roads from the use of salt.

Kansas City, Missouri, tries to lessen negative impacts by pretreating roads with a salt brine.

"It's a diluted solution of just salt water essentially, so that is not as high of a concentration of salt," Green said.

The EPA found pretreatment can lead to a 40 to 62 percent reduction in the overall use of salt.

It's a material that, despite its flaws, reigns supreme in winter weather.