Maryland’s waterways and drinking reservoirs exhibit higher levels of chloride due to the continued use of road salt.
Maryland’s waterways and drinking reservoirs exhibit higher levels of chloride due to the continued use of road salt.

Homeowners can use simple de-icing choices, along with a few tricks, to keep sidewalks and driveways safe while also mitigating harm to plants, pets and waterways.

First used on New Hampshire roads in 1938, 10 to 20 million tons of road salt are now applied each winter season in the United States. Long-term road salt use has a big and obvious downside: scientific studies have revealed northeastern U.S. streams, including those in Maryland, exhibit higher chloride levels than elsewhere (that also includes Baltimore’s reservoirs). Elevated levels of salt harm plant life, fish, amphibians, freshwater mussels and even cats and dogs.

Area gardeners definitely know that salt and plants don’t mix. According to the University of Maryland’s Extension “Melting Ice Safely Fact Sheet,” salt damage symptoms to plants can include poor or stunted growth in the spring (commonly with grass next to walks, driveways, and streets), dieback on evergreens and marginal leaf-browning or leaf scorch on deciduous trees and shrubs.

In 2013, the Maryland Department of the Environment launched an effort to reduce salt use by implementing a long list of best management practices:

  • Pre-icing roads with a brine liquid mix help to keep roadways ice-free and reduce the amount of salt needed.
  • Ensuring contractors and state employees check that all salt spreaders work perfectly, avoiding unnecessary heavy road salt application.
  • Keeping tabs on earth-friendly product testing in other states using calcium magnesium acetate (more costly than road salt), sugar beet molasses and cheese brine.

Some De-icng Tips for Homeowners

  1. From our our midwestern friends: lay down a tarp, blanket or sheet of plastic over key areas before an ice or snow storm. It may sound crazy, but this is a step folks in wintery regions take. They’re also known to cover their car windows with plastic and then peel it off to reveal an ice- and snow-free window shield. (We used to so this when I lived in Kansas; two solid inches of ice often formed on your car windshield during the work day.)
  2. Avoid de-icing products that contain the ingredient “sodium chloride,” better known as salt. Though this chemical is the cheapest to buy, you will be throwing pure salt on your property, which can also corrode concrete and and your car.
  3. Buy de-icing product labeled “pet-friendly” that contains the ingredient calcium magnesium acetate (CAM). Though more expensive, pet-friendly products use less toxic chemicals. Top brands include Earth-Friendly Ice Product and ECOS Happy Paws, sold at most retailers. These products are also tinted with bright colors so that homeowners can better see how much is being used and avoid over-application.
  4. If you require traction only, use sand or cat litter instead of salt.

Greenlaurel will soon be testing out a DIY de-icing recipe of Dawn soap and isopropyl alcohol. We’ll report back with results.

Laurel Peltier writes the environment GreenLaurel column every Thursday in the Baltimore Fishbowl.