Road Dust Control - Safest Way to Road Dust Control

The Safest Way to Road Dust Control

In Dust Control, Gravel Roads, Road & Surface Management, Roads, Uncategorized, Unpaved Roads by Bob Vitale

For community residents that live near unpaved roads, there’s an obvious, and understandable, concern about the health, safety and environmental impact of road dust control measures used on their roads. 

There are a number of ways that chemical dust control products can move from the intended location:

  • Over-spraying the sides of the road during application can leak the product into walkways, front yards, surrounding vegetation, etc. 
  • Leaching from the road soil into the surrounding environment can cause chemicals to infiltrate waterways and groundwater. 
  • Heavy rains or flooding can help leach the product from roads. 
  • Children or animals playing on or near the road can track chemicals into homes. 
  • Plants can uptake chemicals, exposing animals that eat that vegetation and the humans that consume either the vegetation or the animals. 
  • Occupational contact by applicators, through the skin or inhalation. 
  • Consumption of contaminated groundwater. 

And there’s a lot of miles of roads that are already treated with chemical dust suppressants – some research conducted by Midwest almost 20 years ago found that, out of almost 1.8 million miles of unpaved public and private roads in the U.S., over 400,000 of those were currently being treated. That’s just shy of 25%. 

(Research cited in a 2002 report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, available for download here.) 

Given the extensive access these chemical dust control products have to our communities and environment, the question remains, are they safe? 

The Times Beach Road Dust Control Story

In the early days of dust suppression, there was little in the way of regulation. (Fortunately, as awareness has grown, so have the research and efforts of the EPA to protect against contamination.) This fact helps explain the tragic story of the ghost town of Times Beach, Missouri. 

In the early 1970s, the town asked one resident, who owned a waste oil business, to apply his mix of chemical waste (heavily contaminated with dioxin) and old motor oil to the 23 miles of unpaved roads as a dust suppressant. 

Over the next decade, the CDC and EPA each got involved in studying soil from the town, as stories of dying animals and sick children began to emerge. During the worst flood in the town’s history, in December of 1982, the decision was made to evacuate the residents. After the flood waters receded, it was determined that toxic levels of dioxin concentrations covered the town’s entire network of roads. 

In the end, all 2,800 residents were evacuated, at a cost of over $30 million. The town was closed. And another $50 million was spent on the excavation and incineration of all contaminated soil. (You can read the entire story here.) 

Preventing Another Times Beach

Times Beach is a worst-case scenario, representing what can happen when a haphazard approach, based on convenience over science, is used. Fortunately, current regulation makes it highly unlikely that anything like Times Beach could ever happen again. Even so, many options currently utilized today are still not ideal. 

Consider the following (from the EPA report mentioned above): 

  • Chlorides, the most commonly-used dust suppressant chemical, leach from road surfaces very easily. They are corrosive to metal, hurt vegetative growth, change the chemistry of nearby soils (further hurting local vegetation) and are toxic to aquatic life. They are easily spread by waterways to infiltrate and contaminate water sources for homes. 
  • Lignosulfonates, another common road dust control product, are toxic to aquatic life. 
  • Petroleum-based road dust control products can contain high levels of heavy metals as well as other known toxic and carcinogenic compounds. They are also poisonous to aquatic life.  

We’ve written before on the negative health and environmental effects of these common road dust control products. Suffice to say, you don’t need to worry about a Times Beach scenario with them. But they’re not great either. 

But then, fugitive dust itself also causes significant health, safety and environmental concerns. From a minor respiratory irritant to contributing to worsening lung diseases, the smallest dust particles present severe breathing challenges to residents of communities that have unpaved roads. 

It also inhibits vegetative growth, and even causes some native vegetation to die off, only to be replaced by introduced species that harm ecological diversity and balance. It changes the chemical balance of soil, further harming local vegetation. The ecological damage done drives away wildlife that would otherwise use the local vegetation for food and shelter. 

It poisons waterways and groundwater tables, introducing toxic particles that have collected in the soil. These can then be spread to other water sources, agricultural areas and residential communities, where water sources used by homes are contaminated. 

Economically, dust causes damage to agricultural crops. It also interferes with transportation, hurting regional trade. It gets embedded in machinery and motors, causing breakdowns, repairs and extra maintenance costs to businesses (especially mines and other material handling industries) and individuals (especially in the form of vehicle damage). 

(Read more information on the harmful effects of fugitive dust.)  

Clearly, fugitive dust cannot be tolerated. But if dust particulate matter contributes to all of these negative effects, and many common road dust control products aren’t much better, what’s the solution? 

Midwest’s Road Dust Control Solution

Not long after the Times Beach disaster, Midwest was founded to bring a scientific approach to understanding and controlling fugitive dust. (We helped found the formal road dust control industry, as it exists now.)

Over the decades, Midwest has remained a pioneer in the road dust control field, constantly bringing new, innovative products to market. Throughout, one factor that we tackled head-on more than any other company in the industry has been health and environmental safety. 

Rather than just claiming this, however, we went out and proved it. Our dust control products have achieved some of the most rigorous third-party testing and certification available in the industry. Here are just a few: 

  • Environmental Technology Verification: the U.S. EPA Environmental Technology Verification test data verifies that Midwest’s core dust control products are safe for people and the environment as well as effective in suppressing the smallest sizes of dust particulate matter. No other synthetic fluids have achieved this designation.
  • BNQ Certification: these same products hold the Bureau de normalisation de Quebec (BNQ) Certification. A rigorous and impartial third-party provider of international environmental standards, the BNQ provides a transparent and uniform process: each product is evaluated according to eight stringent parameters that evaluate its ecotoxicological impact.
  • Boeing Document D6-17487: the most stringent corrosion standard in the U.S. certifies that Midwest’s products are non-corrosive. 
  • State Departments: we hold certifications from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, State of Washington Department of Ecology and the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection. 
  • Clean Water Act: our products comply with the requirements of the Clean Water Act and National Pollution Discharge Elimination System.
  • U.S. EPA: our products meet the criteria for the term “synthetic” as established by the EPA for sediment toxicity, biodegradability, PAH content, aquatic toxicity and being oil-sheen free.  

Our products are synthetic liquids with polymer binding systems. This means they work by penetrating deep into the soil and binding dust particles together, creating a web that doubles up to also keep large road aggregate in place. Whereas many other dust control products simply form a crust on the road surface that can be broken and eventually leach out of the road, our products bind the soil together at a deep level. 

This has two benefits: first, the road actually gets stronger with use, meaning less maintenance that can kick up more dust into your community or the environment. Second, our products never evaporate or leach. (They also can’t be tracked into homes by pets or kids or stick to vehicles.) Once sprayed on a road surface, that’s where they stay. 

But even if they do get off the road, say, through over-spraying, they won’t damage trees or vegetation, won’t contaminate waterways and won’t harm people or animals that come in contact with soil containing it. (One study performed by a third-party at a wildlife refuge found that there were no harmful effects to local aquatic life or roadside invertebrates.) Finally, they are also biodegradable in natural environments. Managing fugitive road dust is necessary to protect our families, communities and the environment. But we don’t have to use dust control products that aren’t completely safe. Midwest has long been a pioneer in creating the ideal mix of safety, effectiveness and affordability in its dust control products.

Bob is founder and CEO of Midwest Industrial Supply.