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Could a warmer winter help combat environmental impacts of salting roads?

An increase in chloride due to rock salt used during the winter months can be toxic to streams and plumbing, but there are ways we can help.

PENNSYLVANIA, USA — On one hand, traditional rock salt is a vital source for winter safety, but on the other, it can harm the ecosystem if best practices are not put in place.

A 2018 study showed a 37% increase of chloride in drainage across the U.S. over the last 50 years, because of the use of rock salt during the winter. 

Environmentalists say this has caused problems for private and public water quality and water infrastructure, over the past 70 years. 

“Chloride levels from the road salt runoff into streams [and] it can cause a lot of problems for things living in there,” said Justin Mansberger, a PSU extension educator. 

He also says that high amounts of chloride can erode and cause problems to plumbing systems. 

However, warmer temperatures this winter may be helping the cause. 

In a statement, PennDOT says “Both here in our region and statewide, we are using salt at levels well below normal for January, based on our five-year averages.”

“The less icing and less freezing temperatures that we get usually correlates to less road salt that needs to go out there. That definitely helps,” said Mansberger. 

State officials added that they continually test and review new products and train equipment operators on the negative impacts of excessive usage of road salt.

However, for long-term improvement, there is still more that can be done.

First, think about what chemicals or solutions to use ahead of expected winter weather.

“It comes down to the chemical formula of each of these deicing chemicals and deicing solutions,” said Mansberger. 

A less abrasive option is referred to as C.M.A., or Calcium Magnesium Acetate, due to the lack of chloride. Also, "liquid brine" instead of regular rock salt can reduce the use of salt by up to 70%. 

Second, application regulators on plows help to distribute the medium and limit excess.

Lastly, at home, try spreading de-icer ahead of accumulation, remove as much snow or ice before depositing salt, and sweep up any extra to reuse for the next event. 

There is also a way to help keep track of the concentration of salinity over the year. It is called the Salt Watch, an organization associated with the Master Watershed Steward Program, that anyone can join to test waterways for excess chloride. For more information click here

For more about the downfalls of using traditional rock salt click here.  

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