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.
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By Beth Ann Mayer
Since even moderate-intensity workouts offer a slew of benefits, walking is a good choice for people looking to stay healthy.
How to Rock Your Walk<p>Walking isn't just fun and healthy. It's accessible.</p><p>"Walking is cheap," says Dr. John Paul H. Rue, a sports medicine doctor at <a href="https://mdmercy.com/" target="_blank">Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore</a>. "You can do it anywhere at any time; [it] requires little to no special equipment and has many of the same cardio benefits as running or other more intense workouts."</p><p>Want to up your walking game? Try the tips below.</p>
Use Hand Weights<p>Cardio and strength training can go hand-in-hand when you add weights to your walk.</p><p>A <a href="https://journals.lww.com/acsm-msse/Fulltext/2019/03000/Associations_of_Resistance_Exercise_with.14.aspx" target="_blank">2019 study</a> found that weight training is good for your heart, and <a href="https://www.mayoclinicproceedings.org/article/S0025-6196(17)30167-2/abstract" target="_blank">research</a> shows it reduces the risk of developing a <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/nutrition-metabolism-disorders" target="_blank">metabolic disorder</a> by 17 percent. People with metabolic disorders have a higher chance of being diagnosed with high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and diabetes.</p><p>Rue suggests not carrying weights for your entire walk.</p><p>"Hand weights can give you an added level of energy burning, but you have to be careful with these because carrying [them] over a long period of time or while walking could actually lead to some overuse injuries," he says.</p>
Make It a Circuit<p>As another option, consider doing a circuit. First, put a pair of dumbbells on your lawn or somewhere in your home. Walk around the block once, then stop and do some bicep curls and tricep lifts before walking around the block again.</p><p>Rue recommends <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/exercise-fitness/running-with-weights" target="_blank">avoiding ankle weights</a> during cardio workouts, as they force you to use your quadriceps rather than hamstrings. They can also cause muscle imbalance, according to the <a href="https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/wearable-weights-how-they-can-help-or-hurt" target="_blank">Harvard Health Letter</a>.</p>
Find a Fitness Trail<p>Strength training isn't limited to weights. You can get stronger by <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/bodyweight-workout" target="_blank">simply using your body</a>.</p><p>Often found at parks, fitness trails are obstacle courses with equipment for pullups, pushups, rowing, and stretches to build upper and lower body strength.</p><p>Try searching "fitness trails near me" online, checking out your local parks and recreation website, or calling the municipal office to <a href="https://calisthenics-parks.com/" target="_blank">find one</a>.</p>
Recruit a Friend<p>People who workout together stay healthy together.</p><p><a href="https://bmcgeriatr.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12877-017-0584-3" target="_blank">One study</a> showed that older adults who exercised with a group improved or maintained their functional health and enjoyed their lives more.</p><p>Enlist the help of a walking buddy with a regimen you aspire to have. If you don't know anyone in your area, apps like <a href="https://www.strava.com/" target="_blank">Strava</a> have social networking features so you can get support from fellow exercisers.</p>
Try Meditation<p>According to the <a href="https://www.nccih.nih.gov/research/statistics/nhis/2017" target="_blank">2017 National Health Interview Survey</a>, published by the National Institutes of Health, meditation is on the rise, and for good reason.</p><p>Researchers <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29616846/" target="_blank">found</a> that mind-body relaxation practices can regulate inflammation, <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/biological-rhythms" target="_blank">circadian rhythms</a>, and <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/glucose" target="_blank">glucose</a> metabolism, as well as lower <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/high-blood-pressure-hypertension" target="_blank">blood pressure</a>.</p><p>"Any form of exercise can be turned into a meditation of some type, either by the surroundings you are walking in, like a park or trail, or by blocking out the outside world with music on your headphones," Rue says.</p><p>You can also play a podcast or download an app like <a href="https://www.headspace.com/headspace-meditation-app" target="_blank">Headspace</a> that has a library of guided meditations to practice while you walk.</p>
Do Fartlek Walks<p>Typically used in running, fartlek intervals alternate periods of increased and decreased speed. These are <a href="https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/benefits-of-hiit" target="_blank">high-intensity interval training (HIIT)</a> workouts, which allow exercisers to accomplish more in less time.</p><p><a href="https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0154075" target="_blank">One study</a> showed that 10-minute interval training improved <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/metabolic-syndrome" target="_blank">cardiometabolic</a> health, or lowered the risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes, just as well as working out at a continuous pace for 50 minutes.</p><p><a href="https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0111489" target="_blank">Research</a> also shows that HIIT workouts increase muscle <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/fast-twitch-muscles" target="_blank">oxidative</a> capacity, or the ability to use oxygen. To do a fartlek walk, try walking at an increased pace for 3 minutes, slow down for 2 minutes, and repeat.</p>
Gradually Increase Pace<p>A faster walking pace is associated with a lower risk of <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/copd" target="_blank">chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)</a> and respiratory diseases, according to a <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30303933/" target="_blank">2019 study</a>.</p><p>Still, it's best not to go from a stroll to an Olympic-worthy power walk in a day. Instead, increase your pace gradually to prevent injury.</p><p>"Start by walking at a brisk pace for about 10 minutes per day, 3 to 5 days per week," Rue says. "Once you've done this for a few weeks, increase your time by 5 to 10 minutes per day until you get to 30 minutes."</p>
Add Stairs<p>You've likely heard that taking the stairs instead of an elevator is a way to add more movement into your daily routine. It's also a way to step up your walking. Stair climbing has been shown to <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2211335519301123?via%3Dihub" target="_blank">decrease the risk of mortality</a> and can easily add a bit more challenge to your walk.</p><p>If you don't have stairs in your home, you can often find them outside a local municipal building, train station, or at a high school stadium.</p>
Is Your Walk a True Cardio Workout?<p>Not all walks are equal. A walk that's too leisurely may not provide enough burn to qualify as cardio. To see if you're getting a good workout, try to <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/how-to-check-heart-rate" target="_blank">measure your heart rate</a> using a monitor.</p><p>"A target goal for a good walking workout heart rate is about 50 to 70 percent of your maximum heart rate," Rue says, adding that maximum heart rate is <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/fitness-exercise/fat-burning-heart-rate" target="_blank">typically calculated</a> by 220 beats per minute minus your age.</p><p>You can also monitor how easily you can carry on a conversation while you walk to gauge your heart rate.</p><p>"If you can walk and carry on a normal conversation, that's probably a lower intensity walk," says Rue. "If you are slightly breathless but can still have a conversation, that's probably a moderate workout. If you are out of breath and can't talk normally, that's a vigorous workout."</p>
Takeaway<p>By shaking up your routine, you can add excitement to your workout and reap even more rewards than a basic walk provides. Increasing the pace and intensity of a workout will make it more effective.</p><p>Simply pick your favorite variation to add some spice to your next walk.</p>
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