Editor’s Notebook: Season Salt
The sugar beet. The common ingredient in beet juice anti-icing additives.
Luis Carlos Jimenez

Editor’s Notebook: Season Salt

Science is uncertain whether eco-friendly additives are the answer to rock salt’s environmental impact, or if they pose threats all their own?

February 26, 2020

It’s nearly impossible to wade through the daily news feed without coming across one article or television report from the snowbelt about rock salt’s impact on surrounding aquatic flora and fauna. Regional activists are sounding the alarm that enough is enough with the tons upon tons of rock salt used each winter to mitigate ice, and the buildup of sodium and chloride levels are causing irreparable harm to surrounding bodies of water.

An influx of “natural” or purportedly “environmentally safe” alternatives and additives directed at both the public and private snow markets have answered that alarm. Take beet juice and beet juice additives, for example, which was one of the earliest alternative solutions to hit the market. Initial interest was mostly on the municipal side as a cost- and material-saving measure because, as a spray-on additive, it both kick-started the rock salt into solution and required less salt to be effective on streets and roadways.

Local media loved it, and it wasn’t long before other like-minded products were not only making headlines, but also making their way into the commercial snow and ice market. Who can forget tales of utilizing the briny waste from beer brewing, fermentation or cheese making throughout the Great Lakes region or mixing in sugary sweet molasses castoffs in Maine? And because they were byproducts from food processing, what could be the harm of spraying them on pavement?

Or so one is led to believe.

I don’t wish to debate the effectiveness of these products in mitigating ice, or their value as tools to snow and ice contractors. However, one University of Toledo scientist has risen a red flag about these seemingly innocuous products and the claims about their environmental compatibility that I believe our industry should keep in mind.

It is important to remember that the science always tends to lag behind the product, says Assistant Professor Dr. William Hintz, Department of Environmental Sciences and Lake Erie Center.

Beet juice is a good example. According to Hintz, who has spent the last five years focused on rock salt’s impact on freshwater systems, there is limited scientific research on the environmental impact of using beet juice as a snow and ice management tool. And some of the research indicates these products have the potential to be just as toxic as rock salt.

“We just published a paper in 2017 that found that the beet juice additives, because it’s an organic compound, increase microbial respiration in water. If you increase microbial respiration you can reduce the oxygen in the water depending on the time of day,” he says, adding less oxygen in the water could have a negative impact on aquatic organisms.

CLICK HERE to check out a copy of that scientific paper.

In addition, organic-based products used as rock salt additives don’t eliminate salt’s impact on the surrounding environment. “Because you put “Solution A” into a road salt mixture isn’t negating the impact the salt itself,” Hintz says. “You’re just adding to it.”  

Society has been using rock salt since the 1940s to combat slick winter roadways and it’s been an invaluable tool in reducing winter road accidents and pavement slip-and-falls. But it’s only been the last few years that the scientific community has taken a close look of the impact of that use on the environment.

It’s a noble cause to seek out and integrate eco-friendly alternatives into ice management strategies, but more research is needed in order to draw concrete conclusions about these products’ effectiveness and overall impact on the environment over the long term. Today’s panacea could be tomorrow’s poison.
“Studying the effects --- the effects of the additive alone, the effects of the salt alone, the effects of the additive with the salt – those studies need to be done to home in on what might be the best or better alternative,” Hintz says.

“The jury is still out, so to speak,” he adds. “It’s in need of further study. As a scientist, I’m not going to say one way or another that something is bad or good relative to the current products we study, [but] as new things come on the market it seems appropriate to do your due diligence and see what the impacts are.”

Mike Zawacki is editor of Snow Magazine.