Rock salt is getting into groundwater and wells, study finds

Published: Dec. 11, 2017 at 9:52 PM EST
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Despite some strong winter weather this weekend, many were able to get out and drive thanks to salt on the road. But could that come back to hurt us, both medically and financially?

A recent study at Virginia Tech said the salt could be a problem. In fact it's been a problem since the early 1990s, but it takes a long time for the effects to start showing up.

The study found despite measures to avoid it, chloride in the rock salt is getting to water.

Recent studies found storm water runoff ponds are not containing the chloride.

Joel Snodgrass is the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Department Head at Virginia Tech and lead the study.

He explained, "It turns out that the salt that we put on the roads doesn't stick in the ponds, so to speak, and enters the ground water fairly rapidly, and then is transported to the streams or the surface waters."

That can mean wildlife in water can be starved of it, even if they're in the stream.

“You’re basically putting these animals in a desert, because they can’t regulate the salt in their bodies and get enough water to balance it out,” Snodgrass said.

“If salt levels continue to increase in freshwater areas, many fish and amphibians will stop breeding and eventually die because their bodies cannot adjust to the change.”

A separate study, done by the Flint Water Team in Orleans, New York, found if the salt gets into common copper pipes that are held together by Lead-soldered joint, the pipes can break down.

Kelsey Pieper is a USDA-NIFA Researcher at Virginia Tech and was involved in the study.

She explained, "When you have those metals all in contact, higher Chloride levels can increase the corrosion at that joint."

What all this can mean is a lot more salt than you would expect getting into our drinking water.

"It can increase our sodium levels, and we all know that high sodium diet is often not good for folks with hypertension and things like that," Snodgrass said.

For the most part this only effects people with wells, especially if they're near a road-way as municipalities monitor salt levels. But mistakes can happen, and people will feel it in the wallet with devices using water.

Snodgrass said, "The hot water heater can rust, your dishwasher can rust, your clothes washing machine. All of those things fall apart fairly quickly if they have a lot of salt water running through them."

Pieper said she saw this first hand in New York.

"We talked to residents who said that they were buying kitchen faucets, dish washers, washing machines more frequently than you would expect, you know every two to three years for just an appliance."

Snodgrass was asked how to fix this, and he said it's not treating all water to remove Chloride, because that's expensive and water bills would skyrocket.

People are currently trying to find solutions and products that aren't so toxic to the environment or could be easier to clean. The other option is for towns, cities, and counties to start using less salt.

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