EDITORIAL: Salt is crucial but corrodes our cars, poisons our waters

by | Feb 17, 2017 | Editorial

By Tyler Hehn

Salt is a one of the most useful elements on Earth, but also one of the most harmful. Salt is used for many things, but ridding every road or walkway within cities across the globe of ice and snow shouldn’t be one of them.

In small amounts salt is acceptable, both for the human body and the planet Earth. Sprinkling salt on French fries – almost a necessity – is fine, but frozen foods chalk full of the stuff as a preservative is a major contributor to high blood pressure.

Salt on door steps, stairs even major roadways are critical for towns that suffer from consistent extreme cold or snow. Toronto is a city in which the tonnes and tonnes of road salt used are unnecessary and useless, considering it usually is washed away in the slush that forms before accumulation or freezing.

There are tonnes of problems with the tonnes of road salt we use. It corrodes vehicles, it damages roads which need tax dollars to fix, it decays the concrete and metal supports of buildings and signs. Worst of all, it contaminates the most essential requirement for life, water.

The washing away of road salt goes exactly where it is expected to go: lakes, rivers and groundwater. It is so obvious that road salt is a bad idea that Environment Canada moved to classify it as a schedule 1 toxic substance. Other schedule 1 toxic substances include asbestos, lead and mercury.

Oceans make up 71 per cent of the Earth’s surface and 97 per cent of our total water. We can’t drink from the oceans because the amount of salt saturation transforms the hydrating effects of water into a diuretic (a dehydrator). Roughly, this means that salt makes 97 per cent of the Earth’s water undrinkable, yet we throw it in our freshwater systems because we don’t like things to be slippery and we can’t find anything else that does it. We shrug and say it’ll have to do.

Salt water is similar to oil sands in that getting salt out of water is a real hassle. Not sure how many drivers agree with the price of oil, but the price of water could see a devilishly sharp rise if we continue to limit our accessibility to it. Unlike those who choose to drive, everybody is a water drinker. These prices will affect everybody, especially those who already struggle to get any.

Humans aside, animals need fresh water as well. We kill species of plants and animals we have yet to discover because of the road salt we lavishly lay under our feet. Pretty soon there won’t have to be a distinction of shark or crocodile between fresh or saltwater breeds, and small town fishing will be remembered by adults of the future as playing tag outside is remembered today.

Whenever it was decided that regular salt wasn’t good enough (or harmful enough, whichever came first) we doused it in chemicals so surfaces wouldn’t just freeze over. Magnesium chloride is one of the multiple combinations that has been added to salt to make even the coldest of days walkable. Basically this compound (pardon the pun) compounds the negative effects of salt.

A quick Google search renders several alternatives to using road salt. Not all of them are feasible for a city like Toronto, understandably. Beet juice was among the alternatives, as was gravel, cheese brine and molasses. Salt is clearly the easiest and cheapest solution.

Why haven’t we invented or discovered a de-icing solution that doesn’t drain the life from everything it touches? If humans have the ability to discover nuclear energy, invent self-driving cars, travel to the moon and back, how come we cannot create a product that prevents roads from freezing?

Governments are lazy.

Salt works, and that is all that matters for the short-term. However, this is the thinking that governments are paid and voted into power to avoid. If environmentalism was really on the minds of the officials that lead us, gas taxes wouldn’t exist and an alternative to road salt would. There are many problems populations have with their governments, but dealing with road salt in places where it is used frequently should be a priority, when it is not.

Before we erect windmills or increase prices to deter usage, let’s all look at the serious and easily correctable problems we can change that are right under our noses – or feet.