Taken by a grain of salt

By  | February 25, 2009 | 0 Comments | Filed under: Posts by M. Boilard

We’ve almost put February behind us. This is the time of year when we look around after that winter thaw and still see white everywhere. Roads and their shoulders, parking lots and sidewalks, all wear their blotchy coats of crystalline whitewash made of sodium chloride. Except for our grime-induced shudders, as we look over our barnacled vehicles parked in our white streaked driveways, we don’t react; we simply take it all in stride as a necessary part of our road maintenance regimen. What we see, only reminds us that winter has overstayed its welcome; making us long for those heavy, spring rains to quickly wash all winter’s remnants from the face of our surroundings. What’s the harm…it’s only salt?

We have been conditioned to believe that road salt is a necessary evil for the greater good … that ‘greater good’ being public safety. This concept of safety sees 5 to 6 million metric tonnes of road salt applied liberally on Canadian roads every year. However, the sanity of those 5to 6 million tonnes is being questioned by a growing number of people. Is there a point at which too much of a good thing can become a bad thing … despite the need for safe travel?

To support its copious use, the salt industry vigorously defends its position; that indeed, the greater good is the objective as ‘salt saves lives and it keeps the economy going’.

Environmentalists in Canada and the U.S. have been pressing governments for years to curtail the use of road salt, as it holds nasty consequences for plants and wildlife. These side effects have been well documented over the years, as salt is a persistent risk to the aquatic ecosystem and to water quality in general. Salt does not evaporate with water; it only increases in concentration through evaporation. With the fact that 30 to 45 per cent of all chlorides present in the Great Lakes today originate from winter, road salt application, it is evident that without some form of intervention, the salinity of our drinking water sources will no doubt continue to climb. As a species, we are adept at pushing the limits of our boundaries without seeing the consequences until they hit us in the face … as we have done with climate change. Will we do the same with our overuse of salt?

Road salt is also a destructive element in the structure of soil as it kills the needed bacteria for cohesion, thus promoting soil erosion. As for trees and other plant species, death by salt is a slow process. Scientists and environmentalist have noted the loss of indigenous plants and trees along our Canadian roadsides, which are fast becoming zones for invasive, salt-tolerant species. Even Environment Canada has confirmed that plant and tree damage occurs in areas of up to 40 meters from a four lane highway. An example of this would be our maple tree, which is not salt tolerant. Maple syrup production in areas within close proximity to roads has suffered, as the taste of the syrup becomes salty; sometime too salty to be marketable.

Elk, moose and deer enjoy the taste of salt and it attracts them onto the roads, bringing along with them a danger to traffic. Not only is it addictive to our larger wildlife, it is also poisonous to the smaller; 2 large grains of salt can kill a small bird.

We all know that salt corrodes metal; most visibly on our automobiles. However, do we realize that this occurs to a tune of almost 4 billion a year in repair costs? It also etches and weakens the concrete and the reinforcing rods that hold our bridges and roads together. The repair costs to our infrastructure are phenomenal over time. All this for our safety; but what does it do for our health?

Until recently, road salt was only known to affect the flavor of our drinking water, and it has always been understood as harmless to our health. Doctors though, are now cautioning patients that there is enough excess sodium in water nowadays that it could interfere with the health of those already suffering from hypertension (high blood pressure). Well water near regularly salted roads should not be consumed by individuals with high blood pressure.

Most of us know that salt is not the only alternative for winter maintenance, but as it is considered the most cost effective treatment, we don’t question its use. Perhaps we should. Studies declaring it the perfect choice have at no point considered the added costs needed to repair the damage to the environment and our infrastructure. The more costly alternatives may indeed hold savings through kinder and gentler approaches to de-icing, resulting in no collateral damage. There have been no studies to establish this, so until there are, we won’t know.

Reality hits hard when you realize our protectors of the environment…our government, are more than willing to put a price on that same environment, for the sake of economics…and so it goes for public health. Currently fierce opposition from the salt and transportation industries has left our federal level opting for a gentler and voluntary approach to curtailing the use of salt. Municipalities can now voluntarily reduce their use of salt through an available government strategy. Voluntary abatement…we’ve heard this one before haven’t we?

The result of their strategy thus far, is a hodgepodge of methods from one municipality to the next, dictated by affordability. Obviously our federal efforts have fallen short of their mark, as the demand for salt has increased dramatically over the past few years. The world’s largest salt mine in Goderich, Ontario, has responded to this demand by expansion and of course, increased costs.

A little less salt if you please…but on second thought … where would we be without our old friend, but slip-sliding away on those icy roads at 80km/hr on our all-season radials, presenting danger and injury at every crossroads?

M.B.

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m_boilard@sympatico.ca'

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