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What you don't know

City begins using little-studied chemical on icy streets


Tom Francese, program supervisor with the Colorado Springs Streets Division, with one of four trucks used to apply magnesium chloride and calcium chloride. - BRUCE ELLIOTT
  • Bruce Elliott
  • Tom Francese, program supervisor with the Colorado Springs Streets Division, with one of four trucks used to apply magnesium chloride and calcium chloride.

Driving safely may be more dangerous than you think.

Especially when potentially harmful chemicals are covering the roadways.

For the first time this winter, the Colorado Springs Streets Division began using the liquid chemical spray magnesium chloride to keep the roads clear of ice and snow. While used to prevent the formation of ice, the chemical is also the center of a statewide controversy over the wear and tear it causes to vehicles and potential human health risks.

Andrew Edwards of Meadow Creek Tires in Summit County, where magnesium chloride has been used for several years, says he believes the chemical can have a dangerous and corrosive effect on the steering and braking mechanisms of automobiles. The tire store has a display case documenting the effects of magnesium chloride.

"Your average brakes should last 60,000 miles, and we are seeing brakes that have to be replaced at 20,000 to 30,000 miles," Edwards said.

Edwards and his co-workers are not the only ones who have been speaking out about the possible dangers associated with the chemical. Several mountain towns, including Aspen, Winter Park, and Fraser, have all banned the use of magnesium chloride. The Aspen City Council claimed the chemical contains traces of poisonous metals.

Here to stay

The Council of American Trucking Associations, one of the largest member-driven lobbying groups in the country, has also complained of increased corrosion due to magnesium chloride and has called on suppliers of the chemicals to change their products. In an American Trucking Association survey of published two years ago, 70 percent of Colorado trucking companies reported increased corrosion since the Department of Transportation began using magnesium chloride on highways across the state.

Stacey Stegman, spokeswoman for the state DOT, however, maintains that while the use of magnesium chloride has created enemies in almost every place it is used, it is the best way to keep Colorado's roads safe and clear. The chemical replaced sand and other salt-based products that caused increased air pollution and were also damaging to cars.

"We know this is not a perfect product, and any product will have its downsides." Stegman said. But, she says, chemical compounds like magnesium chloride are here to stay. "We're not going back to our old methods of snow removal."

As magnesium chloride is "a sticky product," Stegman says that the transportation department advises motorists to wash their cars after driving on roads that have been treated with the chemical.

Very little literature

Despite the controversies generated by magnesium chloride -- and the state DOT's insistence that the chemical is perfectly safe -- its long-term effects have not been studied closely.

William Lewis, a professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, who conducted the DOT's original environmental assessment and now sits on the National Research Council Transportation Board's nationwide magnesium chloride study team, says that magnesium chloride has seldom been studied specifically and that there is very little literature about the chemical.

"It is well known, and has been for sometime, that chlorides are damaging to trees," Lewis said. The roadside trees, he says, tend to "soak up chlorides whether they need it or not," which can cause browning, wilting and possibly worse.

The department of transportation is conducting an ongoing study on the effects of magnesium chloride on roadside vegetation, but the results have not are not currently available, Stegman said.

Because of the vastly different opinions surrounding magnesium chloride's use and the lack of information available on its long-term consequences, it is difficult to estimate what effects it will have in Colorado Springs. The city began using magnesium chloride, as well as a similar chemical known as calcium chloride, this month.

"We understand the concerns and that's why we're treading lightly," said Tom Francese of the Colorado Springs Street Division.

Banned substance

Francese acknowledges that the city is "very aware of the corrosive effects" and says the chemical will not be used in the downtown area. Magnesium chloride, he noted, has been shown to cause damage to shoe leather, carpets and other materials -- one of the criticisms voiced in mountain towns that have already banned the substance.

In addition, the chemical, if ingested by humans, can cause serious health problems. In a report from Hills Brothers Chemicals Co., one of the providers of chemical products to Colorado Springs, the company warns that exposure to large amounts of magnesium chloride can cause nausea and vomiting, gastrointestinal irritation of the stomach, irritation of the skin and eyes, and minor damage to the cornea.

Though Colorado Springs hasn't used large quantities of the chemical yet, the street department is planning to test the chemical throughout the remainder of the snow season. The city has purchased four new trucks to apply the liquid.

If the tests prove successful, Francese says, the city could likely follow the state's lead and increase its use of the chemical on icy streets.

"We're only one time out of the gates with this stuff," he said, "and so we're sort of treading on thin ice here."

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