Using salt on roads and in the environment can impact our supply of fresh water, study finds

Photo (c) Milan Krasula - Getty Images

Experts say using too much salt can also affect consumers’ health

A new study conducted by researchers from the University of Maryland explored how using salt in the environment can be detrimental to the global freshwater supply. 

Their findings showed that when salt is used for things like melting snow on roads, softening water, or even construction, it ultimately impacts clean drinking water, the environment, and consumers’ health. 

“We used to think about adding salts as not much of a problem,” said researcher Sujay Kaushal. “We thought we put it on the roads in winter and it gets washed away, but we realized that it stuck around and accumulated. Now we’re looking into both the acute exposure risks and the long-term health, environmental, and infrastructure risks of all these chemical cocktails that result from adding salts to the environment, and we’re saying, ‘This is becoming one of the most serious threats to our freshwater supply.’ And it’s happening in many places we look in the United States and around the world.” 

The risks of salt in the environment

After conducting a thorough review of past studies, the team learned that salt use is increasing worldwide. They found that fertilizers, decaying old buildings, and even rising sea levels contribute to the consistent increase in salt concentration. The researchers dubbed this phenomenon “Freshwater Salinization Syndrome” because using salt in the environment ultimately leads to a build-up of toxic chemicals. 

Salt can affect the integrity of roadways, and it can also change the ecosystem of natural water sources by making these habitats more hospitable for different types of species and less desirable for the original inhabitants. Perhaps most importantly, it can compromise clean drinking water; the researchers explained this is already happening in several places in the northeast, with salt infiltrating the drinking water supply at a higher rate.

“I am greatly surprised by the increasing scope and intensity of these problems as highlighted from our studies,” said researcher Gene E. Likens. “Increased salinization of surface waters is becoming a major environmental problem in many places in the world.” 

How can we combat this?

To protect the water supply, the environment, and consumers’ health, the researchers recommend stricter regulations on water monitoring systems. This would allow experts to closely watch salinity levels in drinking water supplies and ultimately reduce the chemical impact of salt use. 

Because salt is used in several ways in the environment, and it has such wide-reaching impacts, the team also suggests that experts look at the sources of the biggest salt runoffs and work to address those first. 

“Ultimately, we need regulation at the higher levels, and we’re still lacking adequate protection of local jurisdictions and water supplies,” said Kaushal. “We have made dramatic improvements to acid rain and air quality, and we’re trying to address climate change this way. What we need here is a better understanding of the complicated effects of added salts and regulations based on that. This can allow us to avert a really difficult future for freshwater supplies.” 

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