State begins new study on de-icer
State health officials have begun a study of the controversial de-icer, magnesium chloride, in response to complaints by citizens worried about potential ill health effects from breathing the substance.
Although the study is being conducted in response to what one health official termed “fewer than 10 complaints” – all of which came from the Roaring Fork Valley – the study is not geared toward investigating the compound’s effects on human health.
Instead, officials hope to determine how much of the magnesium chloride spread on local roads remains as a residue over time, and how much of it becomes airborne after application.
Field researchers from the Air Quality Control Division of the Colorado Department of Health were scheduled to come to the Roaring Fork Valley last week to begin gathering data on the de-icer, which has come under fire recently among valley government officials and residents.
Local citizens have expressed concerns about the effects of inhaling the stuff after it is laid down by road maintenance crews and then kicked up into the air by passing cars.
The first phase of the study, according to air quality control spokesman Mike Silverstein, is to gather samples of dirt and gravel alongside Highway 82. Those will then be studied to determine how many heavy metals and other potentially harmful chemical compounds are present, and whether their accumulation and “re-entrainment” by runoff might pose a health hazard.
In addition, Silverstein said, health department analysts will be researching the available literature to see what health risks are posed by the chemicals found in the samples.
And the department will conduct studies on air pollution monitoring filters in three locations – Aspen, Denver and Pagosa Springs – because “we know there is widespread use of magnesium chloride in those three towns,” Silverstein said. The study will compare recent deposits on the filters to data gathered in the past at the same three locations.
Silverstein conceded that there has been little in-depth study of magnesium chloride and contaminants that have been found in it by the Colorado Department of Transportation.
CDOT discovered a variety of heavy metals in its stores of de-icer, and recently released information of an ongoing study of magnesium chloride’s effects on aquatic species. That study, by University of Colorado researcher William Lewis, has so far showed no ill effects from magnesium chloride on fish, insect and plant species found in streams along the state’s highways.
Aspen, Snowmass Village and Basalt have all ceased using magnesium chloride on their streets, as has the town of Minturn, according to reports. And the state of Alaska is studying the substance after reports that it is more corrosive than its manufacturers claim and has caused problems with road maintenance equipment in that state.
The substances that raised the alarms in Colorado included such things as lead, cadmium, copper and arsenic, all known to pose health hazards in humans. Plenty is known about the human health effects of exposure to those substances, noted Silverstein.
Despite the results of the CDOT study, citizens’ complaints about the de-icer have persisted, including a determined campaign by valley resident Mary Weaver, who has maintained that exposure to magnesium chloride has caused her considerable respiratory distress and even resulted in hospitalization at one point this year.
“She started it all, basically,” said Silverstein.
He said the department is not mounting a special study on health effects because of a lack of money and a “mandate” from state or federal officials to conduct a broad-based study. In addition, he said, the department will not be interviewing people about their experiences in association with magnesium chloride.
But the present “risk assessment” studies should show whether a more detailed investigation is needed, he said.
He said a report on the study results should be issued by the end of next summer.
“I know we may not answer every question,” he said of the studies, “but it’s our intent to take a scientific approach. If we find any alarming information, we’ll have that in our report.”
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Lift-Up has helped feed hungry families in the Roaring Fork Valley for 38 years, but experienced in a surge in demand this year because of the coronavirus pandemic. It is making changes to meet the demand and address allegations of incidents of discrimination.