Road Salt Can Hurt as Much as Help – And How to Make it Better

Author: Stockpile Reports

Road Salt Can Hurt as Much as Help | Stockpile Reports

Road salt is critical. Without it, routine life would grind to a halt come winter. Deicing the streets makes it safe for vehicles to drive through the after-effects of a snowstorm or blizzard. The country goes through an estimated 20 million tons of road salt each winter, poured on snow-locked streets in both rural and urban areas. This works out to a staggering 120 pounds of salt for every American in the country.

As necessary as road salt is, it’s a bit of a double-edged sword. It doesn’t go away on its own, can cause several problems, and ends up hurting the environment. We’ll examine the impact of road salt in this article and how your Department of Transportation (DOT) or associated business can realistically mitigate the side-effects.

A Brief History of Road Salt

Road salt and deicing aren’t new. The country first began using road salt as far back as 1938. It was poured onto the streets in New Hampshire – and it turned out to be a cheap and effective method of providing better traction to vehicles. During the early 1940s, 5,000 tons of salt were spread on highways across the country. The use of road salt increased drastically in the preceding decades. Today, road salt is mined from huge salt mines in states like Kansas, Ohio, New York, and Michigan.

How Road Salt Works

Road salt isn’t always the salt you sprinkle on food (sodium chloride). It’s an umbrella term for a wide variety of products that can interfere with water’s ability to solidify into ice. This includes sodium chloride, calcium chloride, magnesium chloride, and potassium chloride. How does it work exactly? We’ll spare you the technical details. Suffice to say, road salt releases ions that hamper the formation of snow, helps melt it, and also reduces the temperature at which water turns into ice. It’s why seawater remains unfrozen even at 32 °F (0 °C). DOTs apply road salt before adverse weather is estimated to hit, and often during adverse weather as well.

The salt doesn’t go away by itself, nor does it evaporate. Instead, it moves away from the road with snow water melt runoff and through the air as granules launched by spinning vehicle tires. The salt that runs off enters into the groundwater, and into streams, ponds, and wells. The salt that disperses through the air ends up accumulating near the sides of the road, with measurable amounts being found as far away as 600+ feet (200m+).

What It’s Doing to the Environment

Road salt accumulates over time, and is hazardous to the environment and human health:  

  • Groundwater seepage: The salt from the snowmelt makes its way into the groundwater as well as ponds, streams, and lakes. Groundwater across the country, especially in the coldest northern regions of the country, has experienced an increase in salinity over the past few decades. Road salt that was spread decades ago is only now reaching surface waters.  
  • Human health: Studies say that 84 percent of streams in urban areas have increased chloride levels, and 29 percent are past the federal guideline levels. In suburban New York, the majority of water wells for private drinking had sodium levels above EPA health standards. Drinking water with excessive salt content can cause problems like hypertension.  
  • Vegetation damage: Damage to leaves, browning, and dieback is a common occurrence on trees found next to roads. Invasive species of plants and weed that can tolerate salt better than local flora are increasingly common sights (like the Japanese knotweed). Finally, roadside soils are also affected. The salt will displace minerals or make the soil absorb too much water.
  • Wildlife: If there is salt in ponds, lakes, and streams, it sinks to the bottom and forms a layer there. This layer traps nutrients and prevents them from reaching aquatic life – plants, fish, and amphibians. It can hamper their growth and reproduction. Animals that drink saltwater are affected by toxicity. Small birds often think salt crystals are grit and end up ingesting them, occasionally leading to death.

Better Salt Management is Necessary

As things stand, we can’t make do without road salt. Scientists are coming up with environmentally-safe alternatives like beet juice and cheese brine. Until a practical breakthrough is made, we can mitigate the damage caused by road salt and aim for sustainability. Here are some ways you (personally) and your organization can make a difference:

  • Reduce waste: Often, DOTs and associated businesses end up ordering too much salt in summer. This salt lies unused in sheds, where it often gets damaged or leaks. Further, some municipalities end up spreading too much salt on the roads. By ordering and using only the required amount of salt, you can reduce waste and benefit your pocket as well as the environment. SR allows you to come up with and verify an optimal reorder point.
  • Get better organized: Organizational errors, inefficiencies, delays, and communication gaps all lead to inefficiencies in your business processes. It’s hard to remain on the same page when you’re working as a state-wide team of dozens or hundreds. SR gives you the oversight and data you and your colleagues need to stay on the same page and organize your efforts better. You can verify, replenish, and generally save money and road salt.

Stockpile Reports Will Help

Stockpile Reports allows you to revolutionize your road salt management with the help of low-cost installed cameras, computer vision, and an iPhone app. Every pile can be measured, any time. You can keep tabs on your inventory, verify, manage, use, and reorder appropriately with the help of concrete, near-real-time data. You remain in control of your road salt use – you can reduce waste, speed up operations, and generally operate more efficiently.

  • Get alerted to road salt leakage before it becomes a major issue.
  • Digitize your road salt counting and management and auto-replenish so you never run out.
  • Order and spread only an appropriate amount of salt. You’ll longer have to question your salt dispensing rates.
  • Be more efficient and environmentally-friendly next season with historical data.


We save human lives every winter by using road salt, but it hurts the environment too. Until we come up with environmentally-safer alternatives, it’s everyone’s collective responsibility to make more cautious, mindful use of existing road salt. That includes minimizing waste and maximizing efficiency. It’s good both for your DOT budget as well as the environment. Learn more about how SR can make your road salt use more sustainable by talking to our team of experts right now.

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