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Demystifying De-Icers

Since we are still under several feet of snow here at National Geographic headquarters in Washington, DC, with more snow on the way, now is as good a time as any to talk about the chemicals used to de-ice the roads.

The most commonly used, and least expensive, de-icing chemical is sodum chloride (or rock salt), which is the same salt you use on your food. Millions of tons of salt are poured on roadways around the country, but where all that salt goes after the snow has melted has garnered more attention recently.

Once the snow melts, the salt dissolves and the chloride ions end up in soil and water, affecting everything from the bacteria in the soil to trees, large mammals, birds, fish, and possibly humans.

Only a small increase in the chloride content of soil can kill off important bacteria that help break down plant matter, which can change soil fertility and erosion properties.

Pine trees are especially sensitive to increased chloride levels, and plants that can tolerate higher chloride levels, like cattails, can move in and choke out other native species.

Birds can’t distinguish between pebbles, which they require to digest their food, and salt grains, and some studies suggest that swallowing a few large road salt grains can be fatal. Larger animals, like deer, elk, and moose, like to lick the salt off the roads, which puts them at increased risk to be hit by traffic.

Once the salty runoff hits freshwater streams and lakes, it can disrupt oxygen absorption in the water, and stress fish and aquatic creatures that live on the bottom of streams and ponds. The melting caused by the salt can also lift toxic chemicals and sediment off roadways into the water system.

Road salt has little effect on human health, but it is sometimes possible to taste a little salt in your drinking water after a winter of heavy salting. Increased salt intake can cause hypertension (high blood pressure) or make it worse. Most human inconveniences come from corrosion the salt causes on vehicles, bridges, and structural steel.

Other, more environmentally safe options have popped up as alternatives to rock salt. Calcium Magnesium Acetate is less harmful to the environment and works at lower temperatures. Urea, a fertilizer, can also be used and it will actually help plants, as does potassium chloride to some extent (although chloride ions still end up in the environment). A product called SafePaw has been selected by the Vancouver Olympic Committee to be used as an environmentally-safe deicer in its sensitive mountain ecosystems. And, finally, Missouri is using a mixture of rock salt and beet juice to keep roads clear.

–James Robertson james_robertson_snow.jpg


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  2. James
    July 21, 2010, 12:52 am

    I agree, how can we currently distinguish between salt and peddles? Would it help to make one in color, or give it a sent?
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  3. MikeT81
    July 18, 2010, 12:12 pm

    Yeah this past winter was horrible. I am glad that I live in Florida.
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  4. monique
    July 17, 2010, 7:21 pm

    De-icing is critical for the roads in winter, but they just have to make sure the de-icing chemicals is safe for animals and plants. doctor recommendations

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    July 15, 2010, 12:54 pm

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  6. monique
    July 13, 2010, 1:48 pm

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  7. danielx82
    July 12, 2010, 5:45 am

    I agree with John 🙂
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  8. John
    July 2, 2010, 2:32 am

    A recent studies explored that the melting caused by the salt can also lift toxic chemicals and sediment off roadways into the water system.
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  9. hugo boss watches
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    What about doing it the old-fashioned way – scooping it off the road mechanically.
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    June 30, 2010, 7:14 am

    Science rules these days
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  13. laura44
    June 17, 2010, 5:06 am

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  14. inter4522
    June 16, 2010, 11:46 pm

    I think this is the best and safest way to clean snow of the roads. I do not see many other options for it.
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  15. DanMike
    June 14, 2010, 11:36 pm

    It’s just crazy to think of all of the little things like this that we do everyday and it’s killing our earth. The planet is not meant to be able to handle this kind of abuse. electric furnace pricesIt’s just not right but sometimes people ask “what can we do about it”? Well that’s actually a very easy question to answer: ANYTHING. play poker online Seriously, you don’t have to change the world by any stretch of imagination, just take part in the change. Support local projects that you agree with and buy products only from companies with your same mindset. backlinksJust take action!

  16. DanMike
    June 14, 2010, 11:29 pm

    Wow I had no clue that left such a great impact on our environment.

  17. karin79
    June 9, 2010, 9:48 am

    yeah.. well.. you know local governments will always go the cheap way until the public raises a substantial stink.. so the message needs to get out..
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  18. Colin
    June 7, 2010, 3:59 am

    I also didn’t realize something like road salt could have such a dramatic effect on our environment and animals.Thanks for your introduction.Bearings

  19. gmorgan59
    June 5, 2010, 5:54 pm

    What an eye opener and a big surprise. Didn’t realize something like road salt could have such a dramatic effect on our environment and animals. This is done all over US and Canada, we need to stop using salt immediately. Kelowna Hotels | Kamloops Hotels

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    June 4, 2010, 4:33 am

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  21. Linda
    June 2, 2010, 1:27 pm

    Great choice Chrise!! Yet you really feel we can try it out in the old-fashion? Time and man power constraints wouldn’t permit it is what I feel!!

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  22. floor1
    June 2, 2010, 11:51 am

    This is a great and use full post. even if it looks much colder there then we got here. anyway usefull if the temps goes down. Pete who loves Arcade Games

  23. chrise
    May 31, 2010, 1:18 pm

    What about doing it the old-fashioned way – scooping it off the road mechanically. Sarova Lion Hill

  24. Greg
    May 31, 2010, 12:19 pm

    Urea sounds like a good alternative.. not to mention that rock salt also destroys the roads themselves.. so overal it’s just a dumb choice.. although I’m sure it’s probably the cheapest
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  25. Linda
    May 28, 2010, 11:22 am

    A nice and informative post. Yet Urea can in turn have adverse effects when consumed. Calcium magnesium acetate is a better option as of now.
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  26. Shivanu Bhatnagar
    March 11, 2010, 9:05 am

    Many are interested in de icying their roads but this world needs more and more ice.
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    February 11, 2010, 10:56 am

    Interesting article. The question comes to mind: “Can we do anything right?” It is beautiful how ecological our world really is. How can we live without destroying? These questions fail to be asked before we move forward with action day in and day out. We really do need strict regulation, more studies, and more implementation, of literally everything…whatever this means.
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