Press

Excess Road Salt Damages Water Quality, Infrastructure, and Human Health

02/02/2018

Izaak Walton League’s “Winter Salt Watch” empowers citizen scientists to monitor excess salt levels in local streams and lakes


Gaithersburg, MD – On an icy morning, we might be grateful to see a salt truck driving down the street. But road salts and deicers eventually end up in our waterways, creating toxic conditions for fish and wildlife – and threatening human health. Excess salt also corrodes pipes throughout our drinking water systems, which can leach lead and other dangerous metals into our water. Today, the Izaak Walton League launched the Winter Salt Watch initiative to help identify and solve excess road salt problems across the country.

Fish and aquatic life that live in freshwater streams can't survive in salty water, which causes a ripple effect down the food chain. And many of us (more than 118 million Americans) depend on local streams for drinking water. Water treatment plants are not equipped to filter out the extra salt, so it can end up in your tap water – which is a problem for people with high blood pressure and other health conditions that require a low-sodium diet.

The idea for Winter Salt Watch came when League staff noticed piles of road salt just outside our national headquarters after a small snow event. We started monitoring chloride levels in a nearby stream to see if the road salt (chloride) was having an impact on water quality – and were shocked by the results. After the snow melted, chloride levels in the stream reached almost 1,000 parts per million (ppm) – more than 4 times the level considered safe by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency! Knowing that the same problem was likely occurring nationwide, the League sprang into action.

For a limited time, the League is offering free chloride test kits to any volunteer who wants to check how road salts are affecting their local streams. It’s quick and easy to test chloride levels with a small glass and a test strip! We simply ask that volunteers post their results (through a photo) to the Water Reporter website using a free mobile app, which will help identify road salt hot spots in our communities. Our Winter Salt Watch web page (iwla.org/saltwatch) provides outreach tools and tips to help citizens advocate for better road salting practices.

We all need to travel safely in winter months, and many states have successfully tested road salt alternatives. These include products such as beet juice, molasses, cheese brine, or beer byproducts. Although these products have less of a negative impact on water quality than pure road salt, there are still drawbacks to using food-grade replacements, and many of these methods still require some type of salt product. While there is a new awareness of this problem in many areas of the country, the response has simply been more research. “It’s safe to say that we know what the problem is here,” says Danielle Donkersloot, Clean Water Program Director for the Izaak Walton League of America. “While research into road salt alternatives continues, public works departments and property managers must move away from the ‘more is better’ approach to applying road salts and follow best management practices right now.”

Every American has the right to clean water. Monitoring local streams is critical to finding and fixing water quality problems. To learn more about Winter Salt Watch, visit the League’s website at iwla.org/saltwatch.

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Founded in 1922, the Izaak Walton League of America (www.iwla.org) protects America's outdoors through education, community-based conservation, and promoting outdoor recreation.