Living with snow in this part of the country is a part of life. Snow, rain wind and freezing temperatures are all a part of the mix. The combination is a bad recipe for icy roads, driveways, parking lots and sidewalks.

And did you know that Americans spread more than 48 billion pounds of salt on roadways to ward off the effects of winter weather? But there’s a stiff price to pay for keeping ice off our roadways. And we’re not talking about the cost of the salt. De-icing salt degrades roads and bridges, contaminates drinking water and harms the environment, according to scientists and published in the Detroit Free Press.

“The issue of salt has been out in front of us for decades, but has received very little attention until the past five years,” said Rick Relyea, a biological scientist at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute near Albany, New York. “Then, we see, my goodness it is everywhere, and it is a growing problem.”

The U.S. used about 164,000 tons of salt in 1940, U.S. Geological Survey data show. It broke 1 million in 1954, exceeded 10 million in 1985 and now averages more than 24 million.

Marc Edwards, a Virginia Tech corrosion expert who helped uncover the lead drinking water crisis in Flint, Michigan, said Americans have only recently began to recognize the serious long-term consequences of excessive road salt use.

Midwest folks may think their region would be the top contributor of road salt, but they’re not. The Northeast is the top contributor, according to ClearRoads, a national consortium that researches and promotes winter road maintenance solutions, tracks how much road salt state governments use every year.

Some may be surprised to learn Rhode Island tops the pack, followed by Massachusetts, New York, New Hampshire and Vermont. Clear Roads data track only state governments; salt used at private businesses and parking lots, on residential driveways and sidewalks, and by some cities isn’t captured. Many experts believe private industry could be using more salt than government, but no one’s tracking it.

Road salt typically consists of sodium and chloride. While sodium is less water soluble and lodges in soil, the majority of chloride washes away with the rain, according to scientists.

Hilary Dugan, a professor of integrating biology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and her team conducted a study in 2017 that found that nearly half of the 284 freshwater lakes in their sample in the northeast and Midwest had undergone “long-term salinization.” One in 10 of them reached a threshold where scientist worry about impacts on aquatic life. 

The road salt issue has been debated for decades. Studies and surveys show worrisome problems. It’s time for state governments, with assistance from the federal government, to start looking at these problems with serious intentions.