Rant and Rave

Sodium Chloride: A Rant and Rave

by Raymond Magliozzi


Something's been raising my blood pressure and eating away at me all winter long.

I'm talking about SALT.

Salt is ruining our lives, to say nothing of the fact that it raises your blood pressure and increases your chances of having a heart attack. It's also screwing up our environment, and I, for one, am positively sick and tired of it.

When I was a kid, growing up in the Boston area, the road crews didn't much use salt at all--I remember them using cinders on the roads instead. Cinders are fairly sharp, and they're nice and dark--so you always knew where the road crew had put them down. They provided great friction, and they had the added advantage of being free. (Of course, when Tommy was a boy, they didn't use cinders. The horses used special shoes with chains on them.)

These days the road crews put down a combination of salt and sand. Traction is improved with the addition of the sand, while the salt has the advantage of melting the snow and ice, unless the temperature is below some insanely cold temperature of about -6 Fahrenheit or so. (That's what's called the eutectic point. I remember that because I only took the course, what? Seventeen times. Send me 50 bucks and I'll send you my Road Salt dissertation, including everything you ever wanted to know on chemical potential, Gibbs free energy and equilibria, complete with phase diagrams and veritable dumpsters full of equations.)

Unlike cinder, however, salt completely fouls up cars. In the garage, we routinely replace dozens and dozens of radiators every year that have been rotted to pieces by salt. What happpens? Well, unless you're out there washing your car every few days, the core of the radiator gets oxidized to bits. And, you know what else? If it's eating the radiator, it's eating everything else on your car as well.

Most of us think that by washing off our car, we're getting the salt off. Sure, you're getting some of it off. But think of the underside of your car. Think of all those little nooks and crannies that are encrusted with salt. Eventually, all that salt is going to take its toll.

Want to know what the end result it? It's SWISS CHEESE. A car that should last you 15 years winds up lasting you only eight or nine because it's all rusted through. Brace yourself, because one day you'll walk into the garage and your mechanic will call you over and say, "Look at this! The frame is all rotted out. Your car doesn't even cast a shadow. It doesn't pay to fix this. You should junk the car." And you know what? Everything else about the car might be perfectly good. In eight years, the car has literally disappeared in front of your eyes.

But there's an even bigger consideration. Cars, after all, are replaceable, and we make more of them every day. The big problem with salt is that we're RUINING our drinking water. Eventually, road salt finds its way into the ground water. Okay, sure, some communities are getting smart and are restricting the use of sodium chloride when there's a reservoir nearby. The thing is, though, we've been doing this for so long it's already too late for a lot of drinking water sources. And once all those lakes and streams get contaminated, it takes more than a few years before it's okay to drink again. We're talking hundreds of years in some cases. Before long, we'll all be buying filtration-desalinization systems--and if we're doing that, we might as well suck the stuff right out of the ocean.

Then there's our infrastructure. Think of all the infrastructure we're destroying! Bridges suffer the worst from the effects of salt. The salt gets into all those joints and works away on them over time. Plus, guess what? The bridges are, what? Over water, so you've got the moisture from the body of water contributing to the problem. And, have you ever seen someone take a bridge to the car wash and hose it off? I DON' THINK SO, FRANK. God knows what the cost is of all that damage, but it must be astronomical.

You know what else is falling apart? Subways. That's right. It turns out, all the steel girders that hold up the New York City subway system are rusting from the salt that's seeping down from the streets. And, if you think it's expensive to replace bridges, imagine what it will cost to replace the L train. Or Boston's Green Line. Now, THAT won't be very expensive,will it?

What are the benefits of all this salt? You get to go to work on time. I mean, BIG DEAL. Why not take it easy and stay home until the road crews get the roads cleared? What's so hard about that? You'll live. We've all gotten too accustomed to trying to tame and overpower nature. There are times when you just have to say, "Well, forget it." If there are four or five times a winter when you have to stay home for a few hours, WHO CARES?! Read the paper and watch Live with Regis and Kelly. I mean, c'mon, how important is it that you get to work every morning at 9:00 for the next 40 years?

SO, HERE'S MY POSITION: There should be no use of salt on the roads. If road crews did a better job plowing, and used plenty of sand, eventually Mother Nature would take care of the rest, and the remaining ice and snow would melt.

Heck, there are even other chemicals that we could be using. For example, calcium chloride is not anywhere near as damaging to the environment or cars or bridges. However, it is many times more expensive than plain old salt.

At a minimum, salt should not be used indiscriminately. Go out during the next snowstorm and watch the trucks. What's happening? The road will be completely clear, and the moron running the truck is spraying salt all over the place. The towns need to be much more judicious about how they put down the salt. I'll bet you anything that the road crews are thinking, "If we don't spend our salt money this year, they'll take it away from us next year." So, what happens? The first time there's four snowflakes, they're out there spraying salt all over the place. IT'S ABSURD!

It has to be the responsibility of each and every public works director NOT to send the salt trucks out if there's a quarter of an inch of snow on the ground--and the weather forecast says it's going to go up to 50 that afternoon and melt the stuff anyway. Here's an example: In Boston this year--at least up until this past week--we've had maybe four storms with a total accumulation of maybe two inches each and a few more with almost zero accumulation. Yet, the director of plowing for the Mass Turnpike recently stated, "We've had the trucks out 40 times this year!" For what? GET SERIOUS!

It's time we saved our cars, our drinking water, our bridges and God knows what else.

That's my position and I'm sticking with it.

Read the Salt Institute's response to Ray's Rant!

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