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Salt the Sidewalks?

It’s snowing again!

The 50+ degree weather of the Super Bowl was a one-day gift to Sea Hawks fans, Broncos fans and everyone in the New York City area.  But now we’re back to this winter’s “normal.”  With over 34” of snow so far this winter, NYC already has a significant surplus versus average annual accumulation at this point in the season.  And between this storm and the one that is predicted to hit over the weekend, we could be looking at another six to eight inches.


So what’s a New Yorker to do?  Salt the sidewalks, that’s what!

My dog and other NYC canines would definitely say no!  My dog isn't one of those overly pampered pets.  She doesn't wear sweaters or raincoats or jackets.  Her fur coat seems just fine for warmth.  But every time it snows, I painstakingly insert her four little paws into rubber balloon-like booties for the sole purpose of protecting her feet from chemical salts.  Those little white pellets that cause the snow to melt can also cause chemical burns on our pets’ feet.  I roll up a newspaper and bop myself on the nose every time my dog limps through a patch of chemical salt because I forgot to put her booties on.

If chemical salts can cause such harm to my pet’s paws, what are they doing to the environment?  And are there any reasonable alternatives?  It turns out that there is no holy grail for sidewalk deicing.  Road Salt is the least expensive option, and is generally used, as you’d imagine, on roads.  Its large crystals and ability to lower the freezing point of water, make it the most popular municipal deicer.  But it has the potential to make trouble for plants, animals and humans (through its effect on the water supply).  Alternative products exist, and in New York City we often see little white pellets of Calcium Chloride (the culprit with respect to our dogs’ paws) – but Calcium Chloride is costly, may cause skin irritation, is corrosive to concrete and metal, and can damage carpets if tracked indoors. Magnesium Chloride is the least environmentally harmful of the chemical salts, but it, too, is corrosive to metal and is a more expensive option.  “Natural” products, like sand and sawdust, won’t melt the ice, but do have their place as anti-slip agents.  

Perhaps, instead of using pounds of chemicals, we should think about using an ounce of prevention.  Why not try to keep the sidewalks free of ice buildup during the storm so that you don't need to use deicing products at all?  I spoke with my building's superintendent this morning as he was using a wire brush to clear the freshly shoveled sidewalks; he says that our building tries not to use any deicers.

So here are some practical tips for dealing with icy sidewalks:

1.  Keep the sidewalks clear during the storm.  Doing so may eliminate the need for deicing chemicals. 

2.  If you must use a deicer, apply it with a mechanical spreader.  You’ll use less deicing product while spreading it out more evenly.

3.  Include an equal part of sand in your deicing mix (this is a sensible suggestion by the NYC Landmarks Commission).  It’ll give your sidewalk some traction without harming the environment.

4.  Clean up the salt and deicing pellets that remain on the ground when the snow is gone.  Sweep them up and dispose of them properly to reduce the likelihood that they end up in our water supply.

Our environment will thank you…and so will our dogs!


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