There Might Be Road Salt In Your Drinking Water

March 16th 2015

Laura Donovan

As the East Coast says farewell to cold winter temperatures, it has another big problem to address: high levels of sodium in road salt. 

Intended to protect driving safety conditions, road salt caused a surge in sodium residue and found its way into different water supplies, making tap water potentially unsafe for people with certain health conditions to drink. The water supply in New Jersey had to be diluted with cleaner sources, and those on low-sodium diets were warned about the salt contents in their water. 

While road salt can prevent car accidents and deaths during bad weather, the high sodium levels in water remain alarming.

“We’re seeing numbers very similar to last year’s,” Steven Goudsmith, a United Water spokesman, told NorthJersey.com. “When snow melts, the road salt gets carried into rivers and streams and into the drinking water supply.”

New Jersey, of course, isn't the only state that's been met with excess amounts of salt. This winter, the Washington, D.C. area experienced a high concentration of salt levels, and this is nothing new, according to Dr. Sujay Kaushal, an assistant professor for the geology department at University of Maryland-College Park. Dr. Kaushal told WTOP that the issue can take many years to recover from, "Even though [the snow is] melting, the road salt stays in the environment for a very long time. We’ve seen salinization of major drinking water supplies in Baltimore and Washington, D.C., where the salinity has been increasing over time, over decades." 

One solution is to be conscious of where we're building roads, but we might also want to rethink the amount of salt we're applying to these roads. According to the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, up to 15 tons of salt are dumped on roads each winter, and all that salt has to migrate somewhere after weather improves. Minnesota alone uses 225,000 tons during the winter, but people in the Midwestern state have also begun building barriers to keep snow from falling onto roads.

It's hard to imagine we'd shut down highways or halt expansion to solve the problem, but another fix might just be sprinkling something different onto roads. In November 2013, Stephanie Garlock of CityLab made the case for adopting cheese brine, which was first championed by a Wisconsin highway worker:

Victoria Kelly, an environmental monitoring program manager with the Cary Institute, told NorthJersey.com that certain places have already embraced this, "Using brine looks like a promising direction to take road treatment. It’s still salt, but you’re using less, so less salt will end up in the groundwater and drinking water supplies."