The road’s a salt lick

Ah, Montreal winter weather.   Snow, freeze, melt, freeze, repeat.   Shovel, chisel, sand, salt, warm up the car, bundle up, etc.   Salt stains on your jeans and boots.   What’s up with all that salt anyway?   Is it bad?

Salt, or, sodium chloride (NaCl), is a crystalline compound that enhances flavor and increases the temperature of water molecules.   It’s a quick way to melt the ice that forms on your walkway and is often used in large amounts by the city of Montreal (and other wintery urban regions) to make our roads safer and cars rustier.   Oh, by the way, the salt used on our roads that prevent us from accidents isn’t exactly the same as what we sprinkle on our fries.

Although there are many claims that salt is a “natural” ice-decomposer with little impact on the environment, Green Bean Tuesdays says this is hogwash.   Why do you think the Romans salted their enemies’ lands after burning it?   So that they could no longer grow crops!   Salt can have some bad implications for the environment and we don’t really ever hear about them because a lot is invested in using it for a quick, cheap thaw.

Just a little salt

One of the main negatives is overloading the sewage system with salt (and petroleum) soaked melt-water.   Millions of tons of the stuff end up in landfills and the leachates, containing very high levels of chloride (which is toxic), contaminate the soil and ground.

The effects of over salinization is felt most strongly by those who can’t speak any human language.   Have you ever tried to quench your thirst with water from the ocean?   I bet at least some of you have tried and I bet it just made you even more thirsty.   Sure, us humans and our domestic companions have it easy with our sewage systems, giving us potable water, but wildlife who depend on meltwater to quench their thirst can get pretty sick.

Chloride (the toxic stuff) disrupts the osmotic pressure in animal and plant cells.   What this means is that it changes the balance of water pressure inside the body, moving water where it shouldn’t be, and putting substances where water should be.   Moving water around like this can make plants and animals more vulnerable to diseases.

In the winter, we humans have our mukluks, toques and take-out Chinese food.   The wilderness has no such luxury.   Winter is a time of stress and starvation for many animals and adding tons of salt is like a big, sloppy slap to the face.   Imagine a diet of pickle brine and chips with a side order of sea water.   Salt from the roads can alter the environment, damage trees and draw animals that are attracted to salt to roadsides where they can have unwanted encounters with car bumpers.

Connifer salt damage

Environment Canada has stated that there is no link between road salt and human health, however, there has been some attempt to put the components of road salt on a government list of toxic substances after a five year study of its effects on the environment.   The government of Canada absolutely refuses to ban the use of salt for road in the winter, putting safety before the health of the environment.

In Michigan, judges ruled in favor of reducing road salt due to the damage it was causing to blueberry farmers, where there were some instances of 100% bud kill.   Farmers in Ontario put up stream buffers to protect water sources from saline pollution   So, there may be no direct link to human health, if you ignore the effects on crop land and irrigation and the fact that farms mean food.

It’s a difficult thing to oppose, since there have been much more harmful chemicals used as de-icers in the past.   Comparatively, salt it a welcome substitute.   In Canada and other cold countries, it is hard to find something adequate enough to ensure road safety, giving us another bombshell of an environmental and social ethics debate.

My answer = get rid of cars and go back to horses.

One comment

  • if we were to revert to horses, we’d still need to melt the ice! of course, we Could go back to using hot ashes from the coal furnaces, except they don’t exist anymore, largely because coal is a lot worse than salt. Also, when the ashes cool they become slippery, thereby defeating the purpose. maybe if they heated the roads… but that opens another can o’ worms!

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