Road Salt Contributes To Toxic Chemical Levels In Streams | KUOW News and Information

Road Salt Contributes To Toxic Chemical Levels In Streams

Dec 28, 2014
Originally published on January 4, 2015 11:51 am

This is the time of year when it's not uncommon to see big trucks barreling down highways and streets spreading road salt.

Steve Corsi, a hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, says that translates into high levels of chloride concentrations for rivers like the Milwaukee in Wisconsin or 18 other streams near urban areas in Illinois, Ohio, Colorado and several other states.

"At many of the streams, concentrations have now exceeded those that are harmful to aquatic life," he says.

Corsi says that's especially true during the winter. He and other scientists analyzed chloride levels dating back to 1960 but primarily from the 1990s to 2011. The number of times they found toxic levels of chloride doubled over the two decades.

He says there are plenty of reasons for the increase. "We have lots of businesses that have parking lots and sidewalks and such; we have residents who have driveways and sidewalks, and a lot of people use road salt."

Even so, there's growing awareness that the coarse mix of sodium chloride and other chemicals that makes driving and walking a little easier may also cause harm.

Laura Fay, a research scientist at the Western Transportation Institute, says with that realization has come some change.

"There's definitely a more environmental and green movement in winter maintenance generally," she says.

Keeping highways clear in the U.S. can cost as much as $2.3 billion a year. So Fay says government agencies that handle road crews are trying different approaches to clearing roads, like adding liquid to road salt to make sure it stays in place.

Or, she says, applying "the minimum amount of product necessary to de-ice or anti-ice the roads."

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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Many parts of this country have already lived through some brutal winter weather this year. As more snow and ice arrive, transportation departments will spread more salt, which works, but which is also linked to rising levels of toxic chloride in many streams. NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: This is the time of year when it's not uncommon to see big trucks barreling down highways and streets, spreading road salt. Steve Corsi, a hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, says what it's meant is high levels of chloride concentrations for rivers, like the Milwaukee and Wisconsin, or 18 other streams near urban areas in Illinois, Ohio, Colorado and several other states.

STEVE CORSI: And at many of the streams, concentrations have now exceeded those that are harmful to aquatic life.

CORLEY: Corsi says that's especially true during the winter. He and other scientists analyzed chloride levels dating back to 1960, but primarily, from the 1990s to 2011. The number of times they found toxic levels of chloride doubled over the two decades. He says there's plenty of reasons for the increase.

CORSI: We have lots of businesses that have parking lots and sidewalks and such. We have residents who have driveways and sidewalks, and a lot of people use road salt.

CORLEY: Even so, there's been a growing awareness of the course mix of sodium chloride and other chemicals that makes driving and walking a little easier may also cause harm. Laura Fay, a research scientist at the Western Transportation Institute, says with that realization has been some change.

LAURA FAY: There's definitely a more environmental and green movement in winter maintenance, generally.

CORLEY: Keeping highways clear the U.S. can cost as much as 2.3 billion dollars a year. So Fay says government agencies that handle road crews are trying different approaches to clearing roads, like adding liquid to road salt to make sure it stays in place.

FAY: Or apply the minimum amount of product necessary to de-ice or anti-ice the roads...

CORLEY: ...Which may end up helping reduce the levels of chloride in U.S. streams. Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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