News Room

Road Salt Poses Threats to Human Health and Wildlife

11/04/2019

Izaak Walton League’s Winter Salt Watch empowers volunteers 
to monitor the impacts of road salt

Gaithersburg, MD – Across the country, communities are preparing for another long winter of ice, snow – and road salt. Although road salt can help keep drivers safe, excess salt can corrode drinking water pipes and make streams toxic for fish and wildlife. The Izaak Walton League’s Winter Salt Watch program gives volunteers tools to identify problem areas and share best practices with their communities.

Last winter, the League distributed more than 500 chloride test kits to volunteers in 17 states, who reported results throughout the winter using Water Reporter. Volunteers found high levels of chloride in streams around eight metropolitan areas – not just occasional spikes but consistently high levels of chloride.

How much is too much? Freshwater streams should have low to no salt content. Levels above 100 parts per million (ppm) are beyond what could be considered a naturally occurring concentration of salt, and above 230ppm is officially toxic. Streams that feed into the Lower Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers near Philadelphia; the Potomac, Anacostia, and Occoquan Rivers around Washington, DC; and the Clinton River outside Detroit all showed abnormally high salt levels on more than half of test results.

“Our goal is to not only make residents aware of the impact road salt has on local streams but also give them the tools to advocate for changes to road salt practices that will decrease salt impacts while keeping roads safe for drivers," says Samantha Briggs, the League’s Clean Water Program Director.

Transportation departments apply road salt to highways and city streets to keep drivers safe. Communities spread salt on parking lots and sidewalks to keep our feet steady. After a winter storm, much of that salt washes into nearby streams, where it can create toxic conditions for fish and wildlife. Many of these same streams feed public water supplies, where excess dissolved salt can corrode pipes in our drinking water systems, causing them to leach dangerous metals such as lead or copper. Water treatment plants are not equipped to filter out excessive amounts of salt, so it can end up in our tap water – a problem for people with high blood pressure and other health conditions that require a low-sodium diet.

As we gear up for another winter, the League has already sent chloride test kits to more than 200 new stream monitoring volunteers. It’s important for volunteers to get a baseline reading of chloride levels now – before the first snow storm hits – so they can track salt-related changes in water quality later. Interested volunteers can order a free chloride test kit at iwla.org/saltwatch. The Winter Salt Watch web page also provides tools to help volunteers advocate for best practices.

Every American has the right to clean water. Monitoring local streams is critical to finding – and fixing – water quality problems.