It's a familiar sight in Boston this winter - chalk white streets and sidewalks that stain your shoes, corrode your car and spark questions over whether you should brace for a brackish glass of tap water later.
City officials said they had 34,000 tons of salt on hand for the weekend's winter storm; a splash in the bucket compared to the 290,525-ton stockpile MassDOT has on hand for this season's winter weather. By Saturday morning, as the blizzard tapered off, a city spokesman said that 1,350 tons of salt had been spread around Boston, and that more was expected.
While frozen-road-fearing motorists benefit from the traction of road salt, some watchdog groups are not thrilled with the health and environmental risks involved.
"When it rains, the salt washes off the road, and that absolutely is a concern," said Emily Long, a program assistant at the Conservation Law Foundation.
The trouble is that when snow and ice melt, much of it washes into rivers, lakes, and groundwater supplies, contributing to elevated sodium and chloride concentrations. It can also deteriorate concrete and steel structures and damage vehicles.
"For most people, high sodium concentration in tap water is just a taste issue, but for those on sodium-restricted diets, it's a health issue. Besides public health concerns, salt can also damage the environment," said Karen Wood, the non-profit advocacy group's communications director. "Once salt enters a water system, it can be difficult and expensive to remove, so preventing salt from entering water systems in the first place is key."
This winter, MassDOT began producing what it considers to be a solution in the form of a solution - a salt brine solution that is 23.3 percent salt to water.
According to Sara Lavoie, a MassDOT spokeswoman, the salty solution is cheaper than dropping salt, and more efficient.
"Increased efficiency uses less salt and sand, resulting in cost savings and reducing environmental concerns," she said, adding that sand is no better.
"Sand accumulates on roadside edges, catch basins, and drainage pipes which can lead to flow restrictions and blockages in the storm water drainage systems."
But as far as Long is concerned, brine is a sugar coated solution: "Brine is salt. It's a liquid mixture, but we're still putting salt on the roads."