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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883


More caustic than we thought

Last year, I wrote of my disdain of the caustic liquid brazenly spread on our roadways for melting snow and ice. One hundred percent of the record email respondents echoed my apprehension of its toxicity, corrosive properties, effectiveness and overuse.

Now, a recent Spokesman-Review article by Nicholas Deshis reveals that at least one of those maladies, toxicity, is worse than we thought, at least with Spokane city’s mix.  Our “favorite” winter road remedy is known to contain PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) — known carcinogens linked to many kinds of cancers, including breast, liver, gall bladder, melanoma and others.  According to the article, there is also evidence that PCBs impair the immune system, reproductive system and endocrine system.

It admittedly melts snow and ice, at least above a threshold temperature of around 20 degrees Fahrenheit.  But at what cost to humanity?  It can also add slickness to roads that would otherwise be dry.  Maybe it will change this season, but the modus operandi is to spread the stuff everywhere when snow or even below-freezing temperatures are forecast.

As drivers must do to drive safely in winter, I think the officials should “read” the road surface and apply where needed.  After Thanksgiving, I saw the telltale streams of the slime (magnesium chloride) spread everywhere, including many level stretches of roadway.

I long for the days when selective sanding, salting and plowing kept our roads drivable.  In those days, many vehicles were rear-wheel drive, and most drivers could still get around quite well.  Now, with front-wheel and all-wheel drive models prevalent, I maintain that most drivers could navigate level streets no matter how slick.

In fact, due to the “thaw-then-freeze” after our pre-Thanksgiving snowfall, many residential streets and intersections developed a layer of glare ice.  Most drivers adapted by lowering speed, but an old-fashioned salt/sand mix (or even just sand) would be welcome.  Nevertheless, that fix seems to have been abandoned in favor of streaming the liquid on every main thoroughfare.

It’s also odd to me that although the toxicity is established enough for city officials to seek an alternative, ending its use is not imminent. A utilities spokesman for the city says, “we have a couple of months worth” of the product left, giving them time to look into other options.  Evidently they plan to use every last drop of it.  How about a refund on what we have in stock?  I’m sure the city didn’t specify PCBs when it was ordered.

In the S-R article it is mentioned that salt (sodium chloride) is polluting the waterways in towns where it is used.  For example, in Minnesota, thirty percent of the wells have levels of chloride exceeding acceptable Environmental Protection Agency levels.  Is that an implication that magnesium chloride is harmless to our water?

The article also reminds readers what salt does to a car’s undercarriage.  True, salt corrodes, but that reminder suggests magnesium chloride is harmless in that regard.  Not the case.  In fact, due to the way it spreads, clings and does not evaporate, I think its corrosive qualities exceed those of salt.  After last year’s column, I received testimonials from city and county maintenance workers that stated the metallic dispensing nozzles regularly disintegrate, and that even entire clutch and brake pedals have “dissolved” after repeated contact with the driver’s contaminated boots.

Readers may contact Bill Love via email at