Why Ice Melt is Bad For The Environment

Ice Melt is Bad For the Environment

Winter – a season that paints landscapes in pristine white, brings holidays and joy (to some), but also challenges like icy pathways and roads. To combat the risk of slippery surfaces, many people reach for their trusty bag of ice-melting salts. But while these salts offer a rather short-term solution for us, they create long-term problems for our delicate freshwater ecosystems that we depend on so dearly.

Why Do We Rely So Much on Salt?

Salt, in its various forms, has been a go-to solution for de-icing for decades. The reason is simple: salt lowers the freezing point of water, turning ice back into its liquid form, even in sub-zero temperatures. Sodium chloride (common table salt) is the most widely used, but calcium chloride, magnesium chloride, and potassium chloride also make appearances. These salts seem like a quick and relatively cheap fix, especially when the other option might be a nasty slip and fall, especially for the elderly, or even a car accident on the roads.

Once the ice melts, one would think the salt's job is done. However, its journey is far from over. With the next rainfall or snowmelt, this dissolved salt gets washed away, often traveling through storm drains and other channels. Unlike other forms of pollution, salt doesn't degrade. This means that what we sprinkle on our driveways can end up, in its entirety, in our streams, rivers, and lakes.

The Ripple Effects in Freshwater Habitats

Salt in freshwater habitats causes a myriad of issues as you may already imagine...

Osmoregulation Disruption
Ice Melt Runoff into water destroys the environment

One of the major problems in using ice melt salts is the disruption of osmoregulation in living things.

Imagine you're a frog, just chilling in your freshwater pond, which is your ideal living condition, yes? Your body, specifically your cells, are busy with a very important job called osmoregulation. Don't let the fancy term deter you; it's basically your cells' way of keeping the right balance between water and salts. It's super vital to keep this equilibrium, or else your cells could shrivel up or burst, like a balloon with too much or too little air.

Now, say someone comes along and dumps a bunch of road salt into your pond. WHAT?! Suddenly, your pond isn't so fresh anymore; it's more like a brackish mini-ocean. This is where osmoregulation becomes a big deal. Your cells have to scramble and work overtime to maintain that fine balance between water and salts, like a barista during the morning coffee rush at your local Starbucks. (Please go to your local coffee place instead. They are likely way more sustainable...anyway..)

Here's the catch: osmoregulation needs energy, like most things. So, with the salt invasion, you're burning through your energy reserves like crazy. It's like running a marathon you didn't train for. Your cells get tired, and just like you'd feel drained and sluggish, they struggle to keep up.

The added salt messes up more than just your internal balancing act. It can throw the whole pond's ecosystem off kilter. When one critter suffers, it sets off a chain reaction. For example, if you're too busy trying to balance your internal salt levels to look for food or escape from predators, you become an easier target. And if you're not around to eat smaller critters or plants, that can change the entire food chain in your little pond community.

So, that bag of road salt isn't just melting ice—it's making life incredibly tough for the plants and animals that call freshwater habitats their home. Osmoregulation, or that delicate cellular balancing act, gets so much harder for these critters, and that's a problem we should all be salty about.

Nutrient Imbalance

Ice melt salts can affect nutrient levels in the environment as well.

Imagine you're trying to grow a lush garden, and you've got this awesome plant food that's just the right mix of nutrients. But then, your mischievous neighbor's kid comes over and dumps a bag of table salt into your garden. Suddenly, your plants are struggling, and you're scratching your head, wondering what went wrong. (Similar things have literally happened in some areas too!)

Dead fish due to to Ice Melt Usage leaking to water
This is kind of what happens in our rivers and lakes when too much salt gets into the picture. Enter something called "ion displacement." It's not as complicated as it sounds, promise! This isn't a university lecture. 

Normally, aquatic plants in freshwater bodies rely on a balanced diet of specific ions—think of these as the "vitamin supplements" for plants. We're talking about goodies like calcium, magnesium, and potassium. These ions are essential for things like growth, oxygen production, and overall plant health.

Now, introduce a flood of sodium ions from our trusty bag of road salt, and suddenly, the plants are getting way more sodium than they need, kind of like if you only ate potato chips for a month. That's where ion displacement kicks in. The sodium ions start pushing out these essential ions from the water, hogging all the spots like a bad parking job. As a result, our aquatic plants can't get the nutrients they need.

This is a big deal for a couple of reasons. First, stunted growth in plants means less food and shelter for other aquatic life. It's like if someone bulldozed the grocery store and all the houses in your neighborhood—you'd be in trouble, right? Second, plants play a crucial role in oxygen production. Less healthy plants mean less oxygen, which is bad news for every critter in the water.

So as you can see, it's not just about turning freshwater salty. It's about upsetting a carefully balanced nutritional system that every living thing in that water relies on. The ripple effects are monumental and can impact the whole aquatic food web. Nutrient imbalance due to salt isn't just a minor hiccup; it's like pulling a thread that could unravel the whole fabric of an ecosystem. We need to do better.


First off, why on Earth would there be cyanide in de-icing salts, right? Well, it's often used as an anti-caking agent to keep the salt from clumping together. Makes it easier to spread on roads. But while that might be handy for us, it's an absolute nightmare for our fishy friends and other water dwellers.

Water can be toxic due to ice melt runoff
Imagine being a fish, just doing your thing, when suddenly the water starts to taste funky. We're not just talking a bit "off" here; we're talking about a toxic substance entering your home. It's like if your air suddenly became filled with harmful fumes. You can't just pack up and leave; this is your home we're talking about!

In the scientific community, these toxic
additives are considered "acute toxins," meaning they can have immediate and severe effects. Acute toxins are like the bad guys in a movie; they come in and wreck the place pretty quickly. These toxins can cause immediate harm, or even death, to  our aquatic organisms. This isn't some theoretical, "maybe, one day" scenario; this is a direct, immediate threat, known to happen. It's akin to suddenly finding out your drinking water has been contaminated, and there's no quick fix. Kinda of like how Flint still doesn't have clean drinking water? Or places in states such as Pennsylvania where fracking occurs? Yeah they can light their tap water on fire. Totally normal right?

What makes it worse is that the effects of these toxins don't always stop at the individual level. When fish or other creatures die off quickly, it sends chaotic shockwaves through the entire food web that can end in collapse. Imagine if every grocery store in your city suddenly shut down overnight for good. There'd be chaos, right? That's the level of disruption we're talking about.

And let's not forget, some of these bodies of water are connected to larger systems—streams flow into rivers, rivers into lakes, and so on. So, what starts as a localized issue can spread, creating a much larger problem. Are we just going to wait around and see what happens or are we going to act now?

Eco-friendly Alternatives To Ice Melt and Solutions

While the situation may seem dire, there are several alternatives and strategies:

Smarter Salting Techniques to Save Your Driveway and the Planet

Pick Your Salt Wisely, Folks: Look, we get it. Winter sucks, and the last thing you want is to skid on your own driveway. But here's the thing: not all salts are created equal. Most road salts wreak havoc on the environment. Think dead grass, corroded cars, and let's not even get started on what it does to our waterways. So if you absolutely must use salt, let's be responsible about it. Potassium chloride and calcium magnesium acetate are like the diet sodas of the salt world. They're not great, but they're less harmful, so let's stick to those when we can, alright?

Sprinkle, Don't Dump: Now, this might be a wild concept for some of you, but using less salt can actually be just as effective. It’s not candy, you don't need to spread it like you're decorating a cake. A little goes a long way. Shovel first, salt later. Maybe even try breaking up some of the ice with your shovel. That's the golden rule. You'll end up using less, which means spending less, and more importantly, you’re doing less harm to the environment. It’s a win-win situation, really.

Beyond Salt—Eco-Friendly Options & Sustainable Infrastructure

Sand on the sidewalk ice instead of salt is a good alternative
Coffee Grounds—Not Just for Brewing: Yeah, you heard it right. Your used coffee grounds could be the eco-friendly hero you never knew you needed. Just sprinkle them on those icy spots and watch the magic happen. No harm, no foul. And if coffee isn't your jam, good old-fashioned sand works like a charm too. It’s cheap, effective, and way better for the Earth than salt. So next time you’re about to toss those coffee grounds, remember: one person’s trash is another’s anti-icing treasure. I wonder if you can ask Starbucks for their spent grounds??

Elevate Your Eco-Game with Green Infrastructure: If you want to be the ultimate eco-warrior, think beyond this winter. Let’s talk long-term solutions, like bio-retention ponds,rain gardens, and permeable pavements. These aren't just buzzwords; they’re real, actionable ways to make your property a haven for eco-responsibility. Installing any of these features can help capture that nasty, salty runoff and treat it before it infiltrates our rivers, lakes, and groundwater. Plus, they look pretty dope and can actually increase your property value. It’s literally a win-win-win situation.

Public Awareness

Public awareness is a big one. How many people do you think you know that actually understand the problems with ice melt salts? Just ask them. You can do it casual conservation. I don't think most people would realize the full detriments. We have to make people aware. After awareness comes push for policy action.

So, once public awareness has been raised about how detrimental road salt can be to our waterways, soil, and wildlife, here's what kind of policy action we'd ideally want to see:

Alternative Solutions: Pushing municipalities to research and utilize eco-friendlier alternatives to traditional road salt, like beet juice, sand, or calcium magnesium acetate. Seriously, beet juice isn't just for smoothies anymore!

Usage Guidelines: Establishing new guidelines that standardize how much salt gets used, when, and where. Basically, let's make sure we're not dumping a winter's worth of salt for a light frost.

Runoff Management: Developing infrastructure improvements designed to minimize salt runoff into water systems. Green infrastructure like permeable pavements can be a game-changer here.

Public and Private Training: Offering educational programs that train both public and private snow removal services on how to achieve the same 'clear road' results while using less salt. You don't have to pour the whole bag to keep things safe, you know?

Consumer Education: Let's not forget the average Joe who salts his driveway like he's warding off a zombie apocalypse. Public campaigns can educate on more sustainable home de-icing methods. What if we put warning boxes on the ice melt containers? Like cigarettes?

Transparency and Reporting: Mandating regular updates on salt usage stats and environmental impact. Let's keep tabs on how we're doing and adjust accordingly.

In essence, public awareness isn't the end goal—it's the starting point that lights a fire under the powers that be to actually do something. And in this case, that 'something' is adopting smarter, less harmful ways to keep our roads safe in winter.

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