A controversial road de-icer produced at a facility in Mogadore has been under fire since at least 2013 from environmentalists who claim it contains radioactive concentrations that are potentially contaminating Ohio’s water sources.
Now, a local human rights group is calling on the Portage County Prosecutor’s Office and the Ohio Attorney General to launch an investigation into whether the company — and anyone else producing similar products — has introduced radioactive elements into drinking water, which is a felony.
The Brecksville-based company, Nature’s Own Source LLC, recycles brine water from oil and gas drilling waste to produce AquaSalina, a liquid de-icer used to pretreat roads ahead of snowstorms to prevent the formation of black ice in subzero temperatures. The product is less corrosive than salt and is only used in extremely cold conditions when rock salt loses its effectiveness.
AquaSalina contains two radioactive isotopes — radium 226 and 228 — which, at high levels, have been linked to cancer. Activists maintain that when used, AquaSalina can get into the soil, be tracked into homes, or become airborne, contaminating drinking water sources and agricultural products.
The Portage Community Rights Group, a member of the Ohio Community Rights Network, has been working since its founding in 2015 to advance local legislation that will protect people’s right to safe drinking water. In recent years, the group has made five attempts to introduce legislation banning fracking and injection wells in Portage County. (The materials in AquaSalina are not made from fracking waste, which is illegal to use on Ohio roads.)
Gwen Fischer, the Portage Community Rights Group coordinator, said the group’s goal is to “get the entire state to stop using it, because the water tables are all connected, and if any jurisdiction is using it, I think we’re all at risk.”
In an interview, Nature’s Own Source President Dave Mansbery said Temple University, the University of Akron, the Ohio Department of Health and others have studied AquaSalina and found the contaminants had “no pathway into the water supply.”
“If the [Ohio Department of Health] thought there was a risk involved here, they would have shut us down a long time ago,” Mansbery said. “You don’t think that Dr. Amy Acton, who shut down the entire state for Covid, would have any problems shutting us down? We’re nobodies.”
A 2017 Ohio Department of Natural Resources study, often cited by AquaSalina opponents, concluded AquaSalina “exceeds” state sanctioned environmental discharge limits and safe drinking water limits for radium by a factor of 300. Other tests run by independent researchers at Penn State, Duquesne University and the National Resources Defence Council showed similar results.
But Mansbery maintains the report was flawed. And the following year, the Ohio Department of Health seemed to undermine the ODNR report, concluding that a conservative estimate of 12 applications of commercially produced brine over the winter season would pose “negligible radiological health risk to public health and safety.”
John Stolz, a Duquesne University scientist who has studied AquaSalina in his lab, disputed the Ohio Department of Health’s findings, noting that the study addressed the effects of the brine in dirt rather than on pavement.
Both the city of Kent and Kent State University have used AquaSalina in the past but stopped after learning it could potentially have harmful effects on humans and wildlife.
City of Kent facilities manager Brad McKay said Kent used AquaSalina when he started in 2017 and stopped using it in March 2019, when the city council banned its use.
Kent State purchased a supply of AquaSalina years ago, said Rebekkah Berryhill, the university grounds manager. But after her department read a study suggesting the product could be unsafe, they immediately “took it offline” and shipped the remaining supply off as hazardous waste.
Berryhill said the university has not used the product for the past two or three years.
In Portage County, the Ohio Department of Transportation is responsible for snow and ice operations on I-76 and all the parts of U.S. and state routes that fall outside of cities. For instance, ODOT plows the parts of State Route 14 that do not fall within Ravenna city limits.
This past winter, ODOT used 126,414 gallons of salt brine and 8,000 gallons of AquaSalina. ODOT uses AquaSalina only when the pavement temperature falls below 15 degrees and the salt brine loses its effectiveness, said Ray Marsch, Public Information Officer for ODOT district 4.
“We are very careful. It’s a science on when we use that AquaSalina. But we’re not just going out and dropping it. We only do it when the conditions allow it,” Marsch said.
When contacted by The Portager, the service departments for Aurora, Mantua Township, Palmyra, the city of Ravenna, Shalersville and Streetsboro said they do not use the product to help with snow removal. Portage County has previously said it has never used AquaSalina.
Fischer said the members of her group want “all elected officials, no matter where they are, to understand that they are poisoning people who are living here.”
Presented with studies cited by Mansbery that appear to contradict her claims, Fischer said she hopes leaders will ask who hired the researchers — and ultimately err on the side of caution. “Remember the precautionary principle: If you can’t show it’s safe, and you have studies that show it’s not safe, then don’t use it.”
“This is a system that works well for the people who are making money and don’t care about the health and well-being of the people, because instead of having to pay to get rid of their waste, they’re able to make money off of it by selling it. And they don’t care where it goes,” Fischer said.
In Ohio, anyone using AquaSalina must pay a $50 registration fee to ODNR and report where each gallon is spread. The legislature is currently considering bills in the house and senate that would lift those restrictions. If passed, the bills would enable the company to sell AquaSalina more easily to homeowners.
Portage County Rep. Gail Pavliga said one of the house bill’s sponsors, Rep. Bob Young (R-Green), told her the bill probably won’t make it out of committee “because there’s just a lot of questions about it. And there are a lot of environmentalists who are coming out as opponents of it.”
Pavliga declined to comment on whether she would support the bill if it went to the floor for a vote, since she doesn’t yet know enough about it. But she said current laws allowing the Department of Transportation to use brine on roads in “only very specific situations that are controlled” seem to be working well.
“I don’t know that I would feel good about turning it into a commodity for commercial use and not being able to track it,” she said. “That would probably present its own challenges, which would make me question [supporting] it.”
Bob Heath, a retired Kent State biophysics professor who served as a Radiation Safety Officer for the university and acts as the vice chair of the Kent Environmental Council, has said he believes AquaSalina is safe when used as directed to de-ice roadways.
His main concern — which he hasn’t yet seen a study address — is what happens when people track the aerosols indoors. Because the question is unresolved, he opposes allowing homeowners to use brine from gas wells on their sidewalks and driveways.
“It may be aerosolized into their food, and ingestion of these materials is quite hazardous, depending on the amount ingested, the duration, and what chemical form it goes in,” he said. “I would certainly not endorse its use in an uncontrolled sense.”
Heath said he’s not very concerned about brine getting into water sources. For Kent residents and others who use well water, it is unlikely that surface water would get down into the wells, which are several hundred feet below the surface.
Residents whose water source is surface water (such as Akron residents who get their water from Lake Rockwell) have a little more reason to be concerned — but not much. The AquaSalina spray or runoff would be so diluted, Heath said, he would be “surprised” if the water exceeded safe drinking water limits for radium.
Heath recognizes most people have a “strong negative view of radiation” because they associate radioactive materials with atom bombs and the destruction in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But he cautions that people should not politicize the issue or “misuse science” to prove their point.
For instance, some environmentalists often refer to the 2017 ODNR study and say, “AquaSalina has 300 times the amount of radium that’s allowed in drinking water.”
“Well, yeah,” said Heath. “But when was the last time you had a cup of water off of the streets? No one’s asking anyone to drink AquaSalina.”
Shane Troyano with the Collaborative News Lab @ Kent State University contributed reporting.
Updated June 23, 2021, with comments from ODOT.