Road safety takes on a new flavor

A truck spreads pickle brine on a road before a snowstorm to prevent icing.

Flavored ice treats such as the popsicle and its plastic-sheathed cousin the freeze-pop have been around since the 1920s, but until recently the selections have been less than bold; mainly fruits, with maybe a watermelon ice-pop here and there. But Canada and the northern US have some daring thinkers who were tired of conventional frozen fare. As a result of their innovations, a number of snowy cities now offer cheese-flavored ice, as well as pickle and beet. No lie.

The catch is that if you’re brave enough to try these new flavors, you will have to scrape them off of highways, which is dangerous, not to mention unhygienic. Liquid whey, a cheese byproduct, as well as beet juice and pickle brine, are increasingly used to help clear roads in winter. In places such as Madison, Wisconsin and Calgary, Alberta, this practice is becoming routine, with many other cities testing the waters, so to speak, to see if it is right for them.

The logic behind using these unusual products is manifold. In some cases these liquid brines are actually more effective than road salt in keeping drivers safe in snowy and icy conditions. Another plus is that brines are less corrosive to cars, bridges and concrete. They are also more eco-friendly, with fewer injurious effects on plants and aquatic systems.

In the US, around 15-20 million tons of road salt (sodium chloride) get spread every winter, with about 5-7 million tons used annually in Canada. Studies in the US have shown that deicing products can reduce winter collisions by as much as 88%. Impressive as this fact is, road salt exacts a high toll. We all know what road salt does to our vehicles. The American Automobile Association reports that salt damages cars to the tune of $3 billion annually. The harm to bridges, roads and buildings is staggering, estimated at $14 billion to $19 billion each year in the US.

Salt also contaminates drinking-water wells, especially those within 100 feet of a road. A 2008 study in NY State revealed that nearly half of the wells surveyed in Dutchess County had salt concentrations above health guidelines, and 20% had enough salt in the water to cause high blood pressure. A similar study conducted in 2018 found a whopping 70% of households had stopped drinking their well water due to a noticeable salty taste. To put that in context, the US EPA recommends a limit of 30 parts per million (ppm), while the taste threshold for most people is about 150 ppm.

Every spring along highways we can see the way evergreen foliage has been burned by salt spray. It also taints soil, harming tree roots in our towns and cities, and making it hard for plants to thrive. Spring runoff carries salt-laden water into brooks and rivers, with harm to fish as well as to the other aquatic life on which they feed.

With all these problems, it makes you wonder why salt is still the go-to deicer in most areas. The answer is, cheap. Well the answer is free, but salt is far less expensive than alternatives like calcium chloride and magnesium chloride, which have fewer environmental issues, and are easier on our vehicles. For the most part, salt contamination of soils and surface water gets worse year by year. Yes, some of it is diluted by heavy rains, but we now know it accumulates faster than it dissipates. In many communities, salt-pollution of groundwater is reaching a crisis point.

This is where cheesiness (and beet- and pickle-ness) is next to godliness. I need to clarify that brine is an anti-icer, while solid road salt is a deicer. Brine is super-effective, if not super tasty, but it has to be applied to dry pavement. The dry residue then acts as an efficient ice barrier, preventing snow and ice from clinging to the pavement in the first place. In cases of prolonged or unusually heavy storms, some type of solid deicer still needs to be deployed.

If solid (rock) salt is bad for cars, roads and trees, it is fair to ask why salt dissolved in water would be any better. These food brines are superior on several fronts. A very important point is that brines contain natural sugars which lower the freezing point of ice, the same as salt does. In fact, spreading molasses before a snowfall would prevent ice buildup on the roads, but that has some obvious drawbacks. The brines are indeed salty, but in lower concentrations than straight salt brine. Sugars act in concert with salt, increasing the brine’s efficacy. In the spring, bacteria and fungi break down sugars into carbon dioxide and water, whereas salt cannot be so transformed.

Furthermore, as much as one-third of solid deicing salt bounces off the road when put down dry, as prior to a storm, while virtually no brine leaves the roadway. Already brine is more efficient, and one-third less can be used. Another point is that these food-waste brines would eventually be treated and discharged into surface water. But salt cannot be treated – it is prohibitively expensive to desalinize water, something which is neither mandated by law nor done voluntarily. Using brines which would otherwise end up in rivers and lakes results in a reduced demand for fresh-mined rock salt on our roads.

As long as motorists expect to drive at highway speeds all year round, we’ll always need deicing agents of some kind. Ask your municipal or regional officials if food brines are in use in your jurisdiction. Just don’t eat that cheesy snow.

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Paul Hetzler is a naturalist, arborist and former natural-resources educator with Cornell University Extension of St. Lawrence County. His book “Shady Characters: Plant Vampires, Caterpillar Soup, Leprechaun Trees and Other Hilarities of the Natural World,” is available on amazon.

Johnson Newspapers 7.1

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