More Salt in Our Water Is Creating Scary New ‘Chemical Cocktails’
By Tara Lohan
Gene Likens has been studying forest and aquatic ecosystems for more than half a century. In that time he's seen a change in the chemistry of our surface waters—including an increase in the alkalinity and salinity of waterways—something he and his colleagues have dubbed "freshwater salinization syndrome."
Likens coauthored a report published last month that found that not only is salinity increasing in many surface waters, but when you add salt to the environment it can mobilize heavy metals, nutrient pollution and other contaminants that are combining to create new "chemical cocktails" in rivers, streams and reservoirs.
These cocktails can be a danger to our drinking water, wildlife and riverine ecology. And they've already contributed to a public health crisis in at least one U.S. city.
"I didn't expect the massive scale of change across the lower 48 that we found—or the magnitude of change," said Likens, who is president emeritus of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies and a distinguished research professor at the University of Connecticut.
Lead poisoning was the top headline from the recent water crisis in Flint, Michigan, but salt played a key role in the tragedy.
When the city switched sources of water to the highly polluted Flint River, the water had a much higher salinity because of runoff from road salts, which, without proper treatment, increased the corrosivity of the water. "That change in the chemistry of the water flowing through the pipes liberated lead from the pipes or lead-soldered connections," explained Likens. Lead was the villain, but salt was its enabler.
Salt was part of the catalyst for Flint, Michigan's water crisis.George Thomas / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Flint isn't the only metropolitan area at risk from salinity-induced water concerns. The researchers also studied public water supplies in the Washington, DC-Baltimore area and found "some of those areas are increasing in salt content rather seriously," said Likens. "It's not just some little stream in your backyard along the interstate highway. It can be very widespread."
Sujay Kaushal found this out firsthand. Kaushal, a professor of geology at the University of Maryland and lead author of the study, turned on his tap at his Maryland home in 2015 to find a blackish-colored water coming out. He realized that increased salinity in the water was causing manganese, a neurotoxin, to leach from the pipes in neighborhood homes.
The problem isn't isolated to a few cities either.
An earlier study by Kaushal, Likens and colleagues, published in January 2018, analyzed data dating back a century in different localities and found freshwater salinization syndrome had become widespread. The researchers found that 37 percent of the watersheds in the lower 48 had a significant increase in salinity, and 90 percent for alkalinity. Their most recent study, from December 2018, took the research even farther, looking at rivers across North America and Europe, but also a few sites around the world, including in Iran, Russia and China.
"What was surprising was that in all of these different world regions there's well-known waterways that show this freshwater salinization syndrome occurring," said Kaushal. "Even our Great Lakes show these patterns of increasing salts and the Great Lakes contain about 20 percent of the world's fresh water."
Salt on its own has been shown to be problematic. Too much of it in the water can be a health risk for someone with hypertension, says Likens. And salts washing off roadways have been shown to damage or kill vegetation. It can also seep into drinking water wells. High enough levels of salinity can be toxic to some aquatic life, too, said Likens.
Other new research has honed in on this threat from salt. "Increased salinity in freshwater systems is expected to cause extensive changes in biota and potentially in ecological function, and some losses of freshwater resources," freshwater scientist John R. Olson from California State University Monterey Bay wrote in a recent study. His work found that by the end of the century, half the country's streams could have an increase in salinity of 50 percent.
But that's not the only concern.
Salts, Kaushal and his colleagues found, can liberate heavy metals and other elements in soils and concrete surfaces, which can be more dangerous when mixed together than any one of them singly. Salts can also mobilize nitrates, stimulating harmful algal blooms that threaten the health of fish and other marine organisms.
Kaushal and his colleagues analyzed streams near the University of Maryland after a snowstorm and found spikes in the concentration of metals like copper, zinc, manganese and cadmium.
And after a storm salt concentrations can stay elevated for months, increasing the amount of time that the salts can draw these chemical cocktails out of the soil and into waterways.
Sources of the Problem
Where Likens lives in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, the roads in winter are often busy with visiting skiers traveling up from nearby Boston, Hartford or New York. To keep the traffic safely moving in wintry conditions the roads are often doused with salt—a lot of it. He's found that at times local municipalities have used up to a ton of salt per road mile per day.
Generous servings of road salt are common across the Northeast and upper Midwest and are one of the biggest contributors to salinization of waterways in those parts of the country, but the researchers found other kinds of salts, not just the commonly used sodium chloride, also contribute to the increase of salinity in waterways—things like fertilizer runoff, water softeners, fracking brine and sewage discharges.
Untreated water goes directly into a stream. MN Pollution Control Agency / CC BY-NC 2.0
"There're just a variety of things that we humans add to the surface that eventually find their way to streams and lakes and reservoirs and increase their salinity," said Likens.
The weathering of concrete infrastructure like our bridges and roads from acidic rain (which has been reduced but not eliminated) also contributes to increases in salinity and alkalinity.
So too does building impervious surfaces, such as roads and parking lots.
The researchers found that in the Baltimore area an increase of one percent in the amount of impervious surfaces caused a 10 percent increase in salinity. Chemicals and salts that would have been absorbed by soils instead ran off those hard surfaces and into waterways.
All indicators are that the salinity problem is getting worse over time. "The graphs consistently are increasing," said Likens. "Not every stream shows the effect, but the vast majority do."
The new research raises more questions than it answers, including what the impacts of these chemical cocktails may be and how we can manage them to ensure safe drinking water and a healthy environment.
The study recommends that we manage the problem by "considering chemical mixtures and potential interactive effects as a syndrome of multiple stressors instead of single contaminants."
That's easier said than done.
"We have regulations and management strategies which are focused on a single contaminant and it's almost like our brain is just able to handle one thing at a time," said Kaushal. "In reality these mixtures have interactive effects, sometimes synergistic effects, which contribute to toxicity where the overall effect of the mixture or the interaction is greater than the sum of the parts."
But recognizing the dangers of these elements in combination is one thing. Testing for them is quite another.
Thankfully there are also other tactics that could help, including better buffers around rivers, streams and wetlands to reduce runoff. Smarter use of road salts would also be an improvement. Already some municipalities are using brines applied before winter storms to help reduce the volume of salt needed later.
"I think another approach would be to reduce impervious surfaces because we're constantly developing new lands and putting down more roads which eventually break down and contribute to these salts," said Kaushal. "So, I think being more judicious about creating new roads, parking lots, pavement and other development, as well as putting in regulations in place for the salts themselves."
With a long lens on the health of our waterways, Likens sees cause for concern as scientists learn more about the impacts of salinization—and as the Trump administration attempts to roll back protections for clean water.
"At the end of November President Trump announced that our water was at 'record clean,'" said Likens. But scientific research proves otherwise. "This idea that we can do whatever we want to the environment, to the water we all depend on, and everything's going to be okay—that's just not correct."
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Revelator.
Many people shop online for everything from clothes to appliances. If they do not like the product, they simply return it. But there's an environmental cost to returns.
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Dolf Gielen and Morgan Bazilian
John Kerry helped bring the world into the Paris climate agreement and expanded America's reputation as a climate leader. That reputation is now in tatters, and President-elect Joe Biden is asking Kerry to rebuild it again – this time as U.S. climate envoy.
Energy Is at the Center of the Climate Challenge<p>The <a href="https://science2017.globalchange.gov/chapter/1/" target="_blank">effects of climate change</a> are already evident across the globe, from <a href="https://theconversation.com/100-degrees-in-siberia-5-ways-the-extreme-arctic-heat-wave-follows-a-disturbing-pattern-141442" target="_blank">extreme heat waves</a> to <a href="https://science2017.globalchange.gov/chapter/12/" target="_blank">sea level rise</a>. But while the challenge is daunting, there is hope. Solar and wind power have become the <a href="https://www.irena.org/publications/2020/Jun/Renewable-Power-Costs-in-2019" target="_blank">cheapest forms of power generation globally</a>, and technology progress and innovation continue apace to support a transition to clean energy.</p><p>In the U.S. under a Biden administration, long-term national climate legislation will depend on who controls the Senate, and that won't be clear until after two run-off elections in Georgia in January.</p><p>But there is no shortage of <a href="https://www.bloomberg.com/features/2020-biden-climate-change-advice/" target="_blank">ideas for ways Biden</a> could still take action even if his proposals are blocked in Congress. For example, he could use executive orders and direct government agencies to tighten regulations on greenhouse gas emissions; increase research and development in clean energy technologies; and empower states to exceed national standards, <a href="https://www.reuters.com/article/us-autos-emissions-california/defying-trump-california-locks-in-vehicle-emission-deals-with-major-automakers-idUSKCN25D2CH" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">as California did in the past with auto emission standards</a>. A focus on a just and equitable transition for communities and people affected by the decline of fossil fuels will also be key to creating a sustainable transition.</p><p>The U.S. position as the world's largest oil and gas producer and consumer creates political challenges for any administration. U.S. forays into European energy security are often treated with suspicion. Recently, France blocked <a href="https://www.wsj.com/articles/frances-engie-backs-out-of-u-s-lng-deal-11604435609" target="_blank">a multi-billion dollar contract</a> to buy U.S. liquefied natural gas because of concerns about limited emissions regulations in Texas.</p><p>Strengthening cooperation and partnerships with like-minded countries will be critical to bring about a transition to cleaner energy as well as sustainability in agriculture, forestry, water and other sectors of the global economy.</p>
Creating a Global Sustainable Transition<p>How the world recovers from COVID-19's economic damage could help drive a lasting shift in the global energy mix.</p><p>Nearly one-third of Europe's US$2 trillion economic relief package <a href="https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-07-21/eu-approves-biggest-green-stimulus-in-history-with-572-billion-plan" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">involves investments that are also good for the climate</a>. The European Union is also strengthening its 2030 climate targets, though each country's energy and climate plans will be critical for successfully implementing them. The <a href="https://joebiden.com/clean-energy/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Biden plan</a> – including a $2 trillion commitment to developing sustainable energy and infrastructure – is aligned with a global energy transition, but its implementation is also uncertain.</p><p>Once Biden takes office, Kerry will be joining ongoing <a href="https://www.un.org/en/conferences/energy2021/about#:%7E:text=The%20overarching%20goal%20of%20the,2030%20Agenda%20for%20Sustainable%20Development.&text=Accelerate%20delivery%20of%20United%20Nations,related%20issues%20at%20all%20levels." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">high-level discussions on the energy transition</a> at the U.N. General Assembly and other gatherings of international leaders. With the U.S. no longer obstructing work on climate issues, the G-7 and G-20 have more potential for progress on energy and climate.</p><p>Lots of technical details still need to be worked out, including international trade frameworks and standards that can help countries lower greenhouse gas emissions enough to keep global warming in check. <a href="https://www.carbonpricingleadership.org/what" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Carbon pricing</a> and <a href="https://www.csis.org/analysis/how-can-europe-get-carbon-border-adjustment-right" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">carbon border adjustment taxes</a>, which create incentive for companies to reduce emissions, may be part of it. A consistent and comprehensive set of national energy transition plans will also be needed.</p><p>The global shift to <a href="https://www.irena.org/publications/2019/Jan/A-New-World-The-Geopolitics-of-the-Energy-Transformation" target="_blank">clean energy will also have geopolitical implications for countries and regions</a>, and this will have a profound impact on wider international relations. Kerry, with his experience as secretary of state in the Obama administration, and Biden's plan to make the climate envoy position part of the National Security Council, may help mend these relations. In doing so, the U.S. may again join the wider community of countries willing to lead.</p>
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By Maria Caffrey
As we approach the holidays I, like most people, have been reflecting on everything 2020 has given us (or taken away) while starting to look ahead to 2021.
We Need More Than Listening<p>By now we have all become sadly accustomed to the current administration sidelining scientists, most prominently Dr. Anthony Fauci, because the facts they provide do not fit with the political rhetoric of the moment.</p><p>I have <a href="https://www.csldf.org/2019/08/22/csldf-helps-climate-scientist-maria-caffrey-fight-for-scientific-integrity/" target="_blank">my own history</a> of filing a scientific integrity complaint with the National Park Service (which falls under the Department of the Interior) after senior ranking employees attempted to censor one of my scientific reports. I know all too well the damage and pain that these actions cause, not just for the individual scientist, but also because these <a href="https://www.ucsusa.org/resources/attacks-on-science" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">attacks on science</a> over the last few years have undermined sound, evidence-based decision making.</p><p>President-elect Biden has repeatedly said that he will <a href="https://thehill.com/homenews/521638-trump-biden-will-listen-to-the-scientists-if-elected" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">listen to the scientists</a>. While this is certainly a welcome change, listening can only take us so far. This past week Lauren Kurtz from the <a href="https://www.csldf.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Climate Science Legal Defense Fund</a> and my colleague <a href="https://www.ucsusa.org/about/people/gretchen-goldman" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Gretchen Goldman</a> published <a href="https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/ten-steps-that-can-restore-scientific-integrity-in-government/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">an article</a> listing 10 actions the new administration should implement to show their commitment to strengthening government science:</p><ol><li>Clearly prohibit political interference and censorship.</li><li>Protect scientists' communication rights.</li><li>Acknowledge that attempts to violate scientific integrity, even if ultimately not fruitful, are still violations.</li><li>Protect federal scientists' right to provide information to Congress and other lawmakers.</li><li>Commit to incorporating the best science as part of agency decisions.</li><li>Elevate agency scientific integrity policies to have the full force of law.</li><li>Publicly release anonymized information about scientific integrity complaints and their resolutions at every agency.</li><li>Institute an intra-agency workforce, potentially under the White House <a href="https://www.ucsusa.org/sites/default/files/2020-09/strengthening-science-and-si-at-ostp.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Office of Science and Technology Policy</a>, to coordinate scientific integrity efforts across agencies, foster discussion of policy improvements, and standardize criteria for policies across agencies.</li><li>Strengthen whistleblower protections.</li><li>Ensure that policies cover all actors who will be dealing with science.</li></ol>
Time for Action<p>I have spoken to many scientists, particularly federal scientists, who are eager to turn the page so they can hurry back to the work they had been doing before this administration, but I urge caution in assuming that things can be "normal" again.</p><p>Before Trump, I naively thought the scientific integrity policies established during the <a href="https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/blog/2016/12/19/scientific-integrity-policies-update" target="_blank">Obama administration</a> would be sufficient. I never imagined that any administration could so willfully ignore and attack expert advice and evidence that is intended to protect us and our public lands.</p><p>I have personally witnessed how hard our federal scientists work. They put in long hours with minimal pay (far less that what they could get if they worked in private industry) to pursue one simple goal: to make things better for the nation.</p><p>We need stronger scientific integrity policies to protect these people and their work. But more than that, we need stronger scientific integrity laws because they also benefit society.</p>
By Andrea Germanos
Environmental campaigners stressed the need for the incoming Biden White House to put in place permanent protections for Alaska's Bristol Bay after the Trump administration on Wednesday denied a permit for the proposed Pebble Mine that threatened "lasting harm to this phenomenally productive ecosystem" and death to the area's Indigenous culture.
<div id="da98c" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="478a197b7c59c92787c92bec92f1ac39"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1331662923710693376" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Bristol Bay forever, Pebble mine never. #NoPebbleMine #SaveBristolBay https://t.co/CBQ9zuy8A5</div> — Save Bristol Bay (@Save Bristol Bay)<a href="https://twitter.com/SaveBristolBay/statuses/1331662923710693376">1606328156.0</a></blockquote></div>
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By Gwen Ranniger
In the midst of a pandemic, sales of cleaning products have skyrocketed, and many feel a need to clean more often. Knowing what to look for when purchasing cleaning supplies can help prevent unwanted and dangerous toxics from entering your home.