March 25, 2023

The use of road salt and other methods to prevent ice build-up on roads has no doubt saved countless lives, but is taking its toll on the environment.

In recent years, many of the costs associated with the use of road salt have come to light, including environmental concerns such as rising salt content in our fresh water or the cost of repairs to buildings and cars due to corrosion.

When used correctly, salt prevents ice from forming, since it lowers the freezing point of water, but is best used pre-emptively. One flaw of conventional salt used for ice prevention is that salt will only stop ice from forming above -10 degrees Celsius.

Currently the greatest barrier to other chemical solutions is cost, since salt is cheap and easily available.

An excessive amount of road salt used on the sidewalk of condos on Harvard Place, Waterloo. Much of the salt pictured here will be washed into the city sewers and into local waters.
Photo by Jeff Halcrow, Spoke News

With rising concerns about our impact on the environment, cutting down on road salt or finding alternative solutions will provide better long-term environmental health and lower costs associated with excess salt use.

Other than affecting our drinking water and the salinity of rivers and lakes, salt impacts our lives in many other ways, such as:

  • irritating and drying skin, which is especially a concern for dog owners whose pets’ paw pads can crack.
  • damage to buildings and vehicles. Salt is abrasive and can speed up the rusting process for metals, causing damage and incurring repair costs.
  • plants and soil can become oversaturated with salt, killing crops or making them harder to grow.

A 2015 report by the National Highway Traffic & Safety Administration of the United States found that cars driven in “harsh conditions” over eight years could “build up enough corrosion to produce dangerous structural problems,” including rusted brake lines.

In 1975, Transport Canada estimated costs associated with salt caused $200 in damage per car, which was $854 adjusted for inflation in 2017.

The dangers of our reliance on salt to keep our roads clear of ice may not be apparent, since they take a long time to have an impact, but the more we are aware of the effects of excess salting the more we can do to prevent it.

Completely stopping use of salt on our roads and sidewalks would certainly be dangerous, though some cities have been experimenting with alternatives. Cities such as Calgary, Laval and Toronto have begun using a mixture of sugar beet molasses and salt to cut down on their use of salt on their roads.

The beet byproduct, when mixed with salt, has already shown its effectiveness, with a side effect of dying the roads red. Officials in Calgary were pleased with the results last year, saying that the beet and salt mixture was a more  “eco-friendly and cost-effective way to de-ice roads than using only salt.”


A poster from the Region of Waterloo’s ‘Smart About Salt’ program.

Remember that when temperatures drop below -10 Celsius, other methods such as spreading sand or other material with grit may be necessary to increase traction on roads when salt is less effective. Consistently clearing snow and breaking up patches of ice on sidewalks will also help prevent thicker ice from building up.

Some resources for smart salt management can be found below

Region of Waterloo Salt Management

Seven Damaging Impacts of Salt

National Post – Repair Costs of Salting

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