6 mistruths about winter salt

Groundwater here. Let’s talk salt. I’m not talking beaches or seasoning but the stuff spread on the roads, parking lots, sidewalks, driveways, stairs – pretty much anywhere outside you walk, bike or drive in the winter.

Don’t get me wrong, salt has its benefits. It’s easy to find, relatively cheap and for the most part does a good job of melting ice so it’s safer for you to get around.

But if you are me – groundwater – salt isn’t so great. Unfortunately, what is put on the ground can end up where I am and overtime that same salt and ice melter will make me – your drinking water – taste salty.

map showing chlorine levels in wells in 2018
2018 Chloride levels at Region of Waterloo municipal well sites

Here are my top six mistruths about salt that I think contribute to it being a water quality concern for me and my cousins in lakes and streams.

  1. Salt doesn’t harm the environment. FACT: Salt is a toxic substance and is a pollutant to water quality. Salt is a chemical but because it is found naturally and it’s used in your food, salt isn’t treated as such. Like many things it is about moderation and only using the right amount when needed.
  2. You can use an environmentally-friendly ice melter. FACT: Most ice melter and de-icing products including ones labelled “100 per cent natural”, and “pet, plant and environmentally friendly” use salt as their main ingredient. Even when you think you are using something environmentally friendly, it probably isn’t water friendly. Take a close look at the product labelling. If it melts ice it most likely lists chloride (Cl) as one of its ingredients and is damaging to water.
  3. Salt works in all temperatures. FACT: Salt (sodium chloride) works best between 0 and -10 Celsius. When it’s colder, it is best to switch to sand for traction or use an ice melter that works at colder temperatures. That ice melter is still damaging to water so make sure to follow product instructions and only use on icy areas only after you have cleared the snow.
  4. Salt goes away. FACT: Salt doesn’t leave the environment. It’s actually the chloride in salt that’s the problem. Chloride is highly soluble, meaning it gets inside me and won’t get out. Have you ever had a house guest who overstays their welcome? For me, that’s chloride.
  5. Water and wastewater treatment removes salt. FACT: Current water and wastewater treatment does not remove chloride in salt and ice melter products from water. Removing salt requires desalination which is extremely expensive and energy intensive, and greatly increases greenhouse gases.
  6. Salt is regulated and you must take training to use it. FACT: Anyone can spread salt. If the person spreading the salt hasn’t been educated on proper techniques and how harmful salt is to water, they often spread way too much or assume salt is the best tool when conditions say otherwise.

So there you have it. My six mistruths about salt. I’m sure there are others so I’d love to hear from you.

Salt is an important tool for clearing snow and ice but where groundwater is looking it’s not showing the same amount of love. Groundwater’s 6 mistruths about salt. #iamgroundwaterblog

3 thoughts on “6 mistruths about winter salt

  1. Phil Molto January 14, 2020 / 3:56 pm

    An interesting read with solid facts that leads to this question: “Why does the region continue to promote/practice urban sprawl through the paving of farmland where more roads, driveways and sidewalks will require even more salt?”


    • Groundwater January 15, 2020 / 8:24 am

      I appreciate you taking the time to read and comment on my post. Protecting our rural areas from development has always been a top priority of council as witnessed by the countryside line which places a hard boundary on where development can occur. As the Region grows, there are steps being taken to build up rather than out. One planning tool is the ION train that has encouraged intensification of development along its route.
      The Region also has the Regional Official Plan that limits urban sprawl as well as the Source Protection Plan. Information on both is available on the Region’s website at http://www.regionofwaterloo.ca/protectwater.


  2. Connie Shibatani December 11, 2022 / 10:22 am

    I completely agree with all the points in your post. However reeducation is needed especially for the so-called professionals. Putting salt on a sidewalk before an anticipated snowfall creates the most hazardous conditions of all. Maybe every snow removal pro (including those working for the city) should be required to walk their routes after a snowfall. Today was a prime example: a few centimetres of snow. The sidewalks that were pre-salted were too slippery to walk on. The ones that had not been touched were fine. I’m a senior that loves to walk but I’ve had more than my share of tumbles in the winter, mostly on “treated” sidewalks.


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