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The Hazards of Chemical De-Icers

The Hazards of Chemical De-Icers

Justin Rollin

The adage, “what you don’t know won’t hurt you” can be useful to live by. However, when you’re dealing with chemical de-icer, it’s important that you understand what you’re working with. Fortunately, the products we sell work well and are safe to use when they’re used responsibly.

With that said, we thought we’d go over the hazards of some of the most common de-icers on the market. Safety is important to us, so we’d like to pass this knowledge on so you know what you’re dealing with.

Damage to Soil

The Colorado Department of Transportation (CODOT) has done a lot of research into the effects of common chemical de-icers. They note that chloride-based de-icers (both sodium and calcium chloride) can cause soil swelling and will kill off the microbiome found inside the soil, which eventually leads to erosion of the soil.

On the other hand, CODOT has found sodium, magnesium, and calcium-based de icing agents (commonly referred to as “ice melt”) can be worse for soil. All 3 compounds cause “soil impermeability”, which means water cannot absorb into the soil and will run off, polluting waterways.

Acetate-based deicing compounds had little to no detrimental effect on soil and, with the case of clay-based soil, improved the soil’s water drainage and aeration.

Corrosion Damage to Property

Both sodium and calcium chloride, if overused, will cause substantial corrosive damage to your property. Neither your concrete stairs, asphalt driveway, or the undercarriage of your car are safe.

On the contrary, sodium, magnesium, and calcium anti-icers are not nearly as corrosive to personal property. While they should still be used sparingly, they are relatively safe in regards to property damage.

Acetate-based products are generally not corrosive and do little damage to property.

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Pollution of Ground Water

Almost all snow and ice removal agents pollute groundwater via “surface percolation” when used in abundance. CODOT notes specifically that chloride-based deicers, even rock salt, will find their way into waterways with ease. Because chloride deicers have high solubility in water they are especially susceptible to accessing groundwater.

While sodium, magnesium, and calcium-based agents can pollute our water, they actually increase the hardness of our water, which makes it less likely to permeate the soil and access our groundwater. However, CODOT makes it clear that all chemicals should be used sparingly and should not be overused to the point where they can seep into groundwater.

CODOT found that acetate-based snow removal products depleted some potassium and magnesium from the soil but otherwise left it healthy.

Skin Irritation for Pets & Humans

Chloride-based snow and ice products most commonly cause “mild skin irritation”. To put it simply, they are some of the safest products to use when it comes to potential skin surface exposure.

CODOT had a little more to say about other de-icing agents,

“Magnesium chloride deicers can result in skin and eye irritation, and minor digestive tract symptoms. Acute exposure to magnesium dust can irritate the mucus membranes of the upper respiratory tract (CDPHE 2000). The CDPHE study reported that there was no evidence that magnesium chloride was a carcinogen.”

Furthermore, acetate products are in the same boat; mild skin irritation can be caused.

To summarize; most de-icing and anti-icing snow removal products are safe to touch within reason.

Danger to Animals

CODOT has some surprising data about chloride de-icing products. Their danger to animals is in their salt content, which attracts mammals of all sizes to roadways. Animals, especially in the middle of the harsh winter, need salt in their diets. They find it in abundance on the roads after plowing, lick it up, and get hit by cars.

In general, sodium, magnesium, and calcium agents are poisonous to most animals (except for rats, CODOT found) and will cause gastrointestinal distress in even small doses.

CODOT lists acetate-based agents as “minimally toxic to fish” and notes that ingesting any of these products will lead to vomiting and cramping.

De-Icers Are Safe; Just Read the Instructions

At the end of the day, all of these products are chemicals that we should use mindfully while limiting our own exposure. While sodium chloride is literally the same stuff as table salt, even it carries a burden if misused. The common thread we found in our research? Read the instructions carefully and use your products wisely!