The arrival of winter in Chicago—snow, sleet, and bone-chilling temperatures from a Polar Vortex—has transformed many streets, sidewalks, and parking lots in my community into hockey rinks and bobsled runs. Thanks to a variety of ice melting sprays and road salt, daily life has been able to carry on largely unimpeded and with a minimum of accidents and injuries.
But a new review article by scientists at the University of Toledo claims the overuse of these road salts is increasing drinking water salinity levels, threatening freshwater organisms, and corroding pipes which may lead to the leaching of metals into the water supply.
To their credit, the scientists point out that ending the use of de-icing salts may not be feasible in the vast and heavily populated swaths of the nation that regularly experience snow and ice storms each winter. They also acknowledge the incredible contributions to public health and safety made by the use of de-icing agents, including a 78% reduction in car accident rates and the countless lives saved as a result.
While the scientists claim the use of road salt is leading to “widespread contamination of drinking water supplies” and there’s an “urgent need to reassess” threshold concentrations of such chemicals by regulators—they also admit we do not currently know how much salt is used and where it is applied, whether current threshold levels are appropriate, and what effect these salts have on drinking water supplies.
These are major questions that need definitive answers through replicated scientific findings.
Notably, the article is not identified as a systematic review and does not follow recommended guidelines for such. This means we have no way of knowing how the studies and surveys used in their review were chosen, whether any quality analyses of the cited studies were done and results taken into account, and what, if any, significant studies were left out of their report.
Between methodological concerns and clear gaps in knowledge left unanswered by this review article, expanded research must be conducted in the future before regulators and policymakers can address this risk-reward issue in a reasonably informed manner.
In the meantime, the scientists did make some commonsense recommendations that can be applied by policymakers and highway departments right away. These include the calibration of equipment to prevent overapplication, safe storage of de-icers, tying the application rates to more accurate weather forecasts, applying less toxic de-icing liquids before storms hit, and evaluating the performance of the de-icers after each storm.
While the potential public health effects of road salt warrant further scientific investigation, I don’t plan to alter my Chicago winter survival routine anytime soon—unless you have any hot tips on base layers and snow boots.