Salt of the earth

Salt of the earth

With a dash of determination, a P.E.I. student investigates the island's water supply.
March 2, 2003

When Brianne Lewis first learned that the water in a neighbour's well was contaminated, she knew she had stumbled onto a salty situation.

As it turns out, her neighbour's well was contaminated with road salt—the type used all over Prince Edward Island during the winter months to keep the province's roads from becoming icy and treacherous. Although it was valuable in improving public safety, the salt was inadvertently creating a health hazard for many P.E.I. residents. That's when 15-year-old Brianne became worried. The grade 10 student from the small town of Marshfield near Charlottetown was quick to realize that road salt can seep into the earth and pose a serious environmental threat—especially on an island that only has ground water to quench its thirst. That's when she sprang into action.

"Prince Edward Island has a unique aquifer system—they're all interconnected," says Brianne. "Because we have no other source of drinking water, it's especially important for them to do something about it—so it doesn't affect the whole island."

Not everyone saw the situation her way. There were doubters and those who wanted proof. "People weren't really aware that this problem existed on P.E.I.," says Brianne, recalling that government officials initially told her that road salt contamination was an exceedingly rare occurrence.

How would Brianne convince the doubting Thomases? She would give them the proof they wanted by combining a formal, scientific approach with a bit of good old-fashioned leg work. Selecting homes from the area around Marshfield, Brianne collected water samples and tested their salinity in a formal laboratory setting. She discovered that just under half of the 41 samples she took from the wells contained more than 20 milligrams of sodium per litre—the level at which local guidelines suggest that you notify a doctor about the state of your drinking water. That warning, she notes, stems from the risks that have been associated with high intake of salt, including high blood pressure and heart problems.

But that wasn't the worst of it. When she repeated her investigation the following year for a similar project, she was even more surprised. This time, the average sodium level in the water samples was more than 49 milligrams per litre, and samples from three different wells exceeded the federally mandated limit of 250 milligrams per litre. Brianne later learned that the owners of the three wells would be able to replace them at the government's expense.

Brianne had finally succeeded in convincing everyone involved that road salt regularly contaminates well water on Prince Edward Island. Along the way, her diligent and detailed work had won her the praise of her neighbours—and a little attention from the outside world. In May 2001, her project was awarded a Bronze Medal in the Junior category of the Earth and Environmental Sciences division at the Canada-Wide Science Fair in Kingston, Ontario, the Youth Science Foundation Canada's national championships for science projects. She was also awarded a $2,000 scholarship to the University of Western Ontario, and the $500 Merck Frosst Prize for a project pertaining to human health. And at the 2002 Canada-Wide Science Fair in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, she did even better by winning a Silver Medal in the Earth and Environmental Sciences division.

Looking ahead, Brianne says she's keen on jumping from one salty situation to another. This time she'd like to examine the impact that salt in water has on the health of humans and animals—an area she says has not been well explored by researchers.