Road Salt Found in Drinking Water Wells at Adirondack Park

A study conducted by the Adirondack Watershed Institute at Paul Smith's College has found salt in 63 drinking wells located downslope of roads and highways where road salt is routinely applied. More than 50% of the wells sampled were polluted with salt at levels deemed to pose a health risk (> 20 parts per million — the EPA safety standard for sodium in drinking water), with the concentrations as high as 748 parts per million detected in drink recorded.

"The actual number of wells that are contaminated is way, way more than what we sampled," said Dan Kelting, institute executive director. "So it is a much bigger issue."

Excessive intake of sodium is associated with serious health issues, including an increase in blood pressure, which in turn poses an increased risk of suffering from heart disease and heart failure, stroke and other vascular diseases, as well as kidney problems.

Funding for the study was provided by AdkAction, a non-profit organization representing the residents of Adirondack Park, and the Fund for Lake George.

Drinking water samples were collected from 358 wells located within the Adirondack Park by volunteers and tested for salt. Most of the samples came from the eastern region of the park, particularly areas surrounding North Creek and the Saranac Lakes.

Of the 112 samples collected from wells located downslope that received runoff from roads where very little to no salt was applied, only 10% had elevated levels of sodium.

Of the 132 drinking water wells located upslope of roads treated with salt and which therefore received no runoff from roadways, salt levels were below the EPA recommended level of 20 ppm, with the maximum level being 17 ppm and the median just 3 ppm.

Nearly 193,000 tons of road salt is applied to roadways in the Adirondacks every year in an effort to prevent vehicles from skidding on the slippery iced road surfaces in winter. According to Kelting, nearly seven million tons of salt has been spread on local roads since 1980, ultimately being washed off these surfaces with runoff into waterways and drinking water wells.

Most of this road salt — around 110,000 tons per year — is spread over state roadways, which make up about a quarter of the roads in the Adirondacks. These tarred roads have higher speed restrictions than local sand or plowed roads, where speed limits are lower.

Kelting says the results of the study have been forwarded to state officials, and the Health Department has offered and begun free testing of drinking water wells to homeowners who are affected by the runoff.

Besides posing a health risk to humans, salt can also have a negative ecological impact in freshwater ecosystems. Because salty water is denser than normal freshwater it tends to sink when it flows into a lake. This prevents water in lakes from mixing once ice melts in spring, which in turn can affect oxygen and nutrient levels in lakes, with dire consequences for aquatic life such as fish.

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