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August 25, 2016
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From the road to the faucet: a sip of sodium?

Managing regional roadways during winter conditions is a balancing act that involves weighing the pros and cons of various products, their cost-effectiveness and their impacts on human and environmental health. Ironically, the same products that can harm plant, animal and human life are also the ones that increase human safety when it comes to driving during ice and snow events.

Throughout most of the Town of Tusten, a mixture of salt (sodium chloride) and sand is applied. Both products have the advantages of lower cost and relative abundance. Salt is effective at temperatures as low as 24 degrees Fahrenheit. Its primary drawbacks are that it is more corrosive than other ice-melting compounds, more harmful to plant and aquatic life and not effective in extremely cold conditions.

Salt used to be the weapon of choice throughout the Town of Tusten, but when water tests conducted by town officials in 2007 began showing levels of sodium in the Narrowsburg Water District (NWD) that were high enough to hit standards set by the New York State Department of Health (DOH), an alternative was sought to bring those levels down.

According to new highway superintendent Glenn Swendsen, that alternative, which is applied as a liquid spray in pre-treating roads prior to storm events primarily on the Narrowsburg Flats, is the magnesium chloride product “Meltdown 26% with AP,” supplied by Innovative Municipal Products, Inc., based in Pittsburgh, PA.

Like all road treatment products, this one comes with its set of pros and cons. On the whole however, it is considered more environmentally friendly than most other options. Less corrosive, it is also less harmful to plant life and can melt snow in temperatures as low as -13 degrees Fahrenheit.

On the downside, it is more expensive, leaves an oily residue and takes on a “slimy” quality when it comes into contact with moisture. This effect can sometimes create its own challenges, as Swendsen discovered one day when the vehicle he was operating slipped sideways on a treated road in the flats.

In addition, application of the chemical presents potential hazards to the eyes, skin and respiratory tract, as specified in the product’s Material Safety Data Sheet (see Swendsen noted that no matter what is applied, it all eventually seeps into the earth or gradually makes its way into regional waterways, so it is worth exploring new alternatives as they become available.

On the horizon are new products such as beet and corn solutions using the leftover mash from alcohol distilleries and beet juice. Mixed in a de-icing cocktail, they can reduce the need for salt and do not corrode metal or pose threats to wildlife or people.

Farther down the road is the concept of roads that de-ice themselves utilizing solar panels that heat up the road surface or fluid-filled tubes inside the road. Although still in its infancy, the concept could be developed in such a way as to harvest leftover solar power from nearby facilities such as charging stations for electric vehicles. Higher initial costs for construction could be offset with savings gained by cutting the costs of de-icing and accident response.

Ultimately, what is applied to area roads takes its toll on the quality of drinking water. To keep tabs on that, Narrowsburg water/sewer superintendent Scott Birney said the town tests for a variety of water contaminants following schedules set by the DOH. The rising trend in sodium levels has been reversed but remains at levels requiring people on severely sodium-restricted diets to take heed.

The town mails its Annual Drinking Water Report to all residents of the NWD in May and posts the results on its website (see the 2011 report at

Application of chemicals to regional roads isn’t the only practice affecting water quality. As spelled out in the report, groundwater protection begins at home. Disposing of products used at home can contribute to the contamination of the community's groundwater. Motor oil, pesticides, left-over paints or paint cans, mothballs, flea collars, weed killers, household cleaners and even some medications contain materials that are harmful to groundwater and to the environment.

Both men welcome questions and comments. Swendsen can be reached at 845/252-7146, ext 3. Reach Birney at 845/252-7146, ext 4.