Capitol Connection: Is Road Salt Really Safe?

September 23, 2014

As the fall season rolls in, we New Englanders know that cold weather is not far away. Freezing temperatures, morning ice and even snow will be here soon enough. And with that, I want to revisit an issue that drew a lot of attention at the Capitol this year – the dangers of road chemicals used to de-ice our streets.

Clearly, keeping our roads safe is a top priority for everyone. But keeping our vehicles safe and our environment clean also must also take precedence. That’s why many state lawmakers advocated for a study this year to analyze the effects of chemical road treatments. With a progress report on the study scheduled to be released on October 1 by the Department of Transportation, we all hope to gain a better understanding of how certain road clearing chemicals can cause damage, and what might be possible solutions.

In recent years, the state has used more than just salt and sand to de-ice our roads. Corrosive chemicals have been used to melt roads faster and keep them dryer longer. While these chemicals work well on reducing the threat of slippery roads, they also have done significant damage to our vehicles, specifically damaging our car and truck undercarriages and brake lines.

So what is the right balance? How much of a chemical is really safe?

These are just a few of the questions lawmakers hope to find answers to through the DOT study. New law now requires that DOT complete an analysis of the corrosive effects of chemical road treatments on 1) state snow and ice equipment vehicles such as plows, 2) state bridges, highways and other infrastructure, and 3) the environment. The new legislation also requires DOT to produce a report with recommended solutions.

Most of the criticism around road chemicals centers on magnesium chloride and calcium chloride which can rust out undercarriages and brake lines. One possible solution is adding anti-corrosive materials to road treatments. Connecticut has experimented with some anti-corrosive chemicals. However, the state abandoned these methods in 2007 because of environmental concerns. Anti-corrosive agents get rid of oxygen so rust cannot form. They can also pose a serious problem if they runoff into bodies of water where they can significantly lower oxygen levels, potentially harming delicate ecosystems.

Currently, the state uses about 1 million gallons of the magnesium chloride salt mix each year. According to DOT, adding a rust inhibitor would cost 10 cents to 20 cents more per gallon or between $100,000 and $200,000 annually.

Road safety is a huge concern in Connecticut, especially as we approach the colder months. But we have to be careful that our treatment methods are not causing equally dangerous long term damage on our vehicles, roadways and environment.