During the cold, icy winter months many in the area are trying to find ways to stay on their feet with the icy conditions. Roads, sidewalks and driveways can be dangerous places when ice covers them.
Kevyn Juneau, Certified Ecologist and Assistant Professor of Conservation and Environmental Science at UW-River Falls, said using deicers can impact the environment on many levels.
The National Research Council reports about 10 million tons of salt are applied to roads in the United States.
Road salt, Juneau said, consists of sodium chloride, calcium chloride, magnesium chloride or potassium chloride. He said the different conditions outside determine which kind of salt is used because each salt works differently and each only works to melt ice at certain temperatures.
With all these salts being applied to roadways, Juneau said there can be health concerns.
"Road salt will eventually enter groundwater and can contaminate the aquifers," Juneau said. "Contamination of drinking water with deicer is a concern because sodium chloride could lead to high blood pressure in those who drink it."
However, Juneau said, there is also a risk to the environment. The salt used as deicer can strip the nutrients off the soil and reduce soil fertility.
"Roadside vegetation will often display what is called 'salt burn' as plants' leaves are damaged from the salt," Juneau said. "The salt can also pull moisture out of plants causing water stress, and salt can make plants more susceptible to disease."
Road salt is not the only deicer that can have harmful effects on the environment. Even the deicers people use on their own driveways and sidewalks can have harmful effects.
"We often find dead areas of lawn near sidewalks where excessive salt has been used," said David C. Zlesak, Associate Professor of Horticulture at UW-RF.
Instead of using deicers to get rid of ice, Juneau said another option would be for people to put down something to gain traction on the ice.
"Sand or other abrasive material, such as cat litter, will help improve traction," Juneau said. "However, it will not melt the ice."
If deicer is necessary, Juneau said homeowners should be conscious of the product they are using.
"Homeowners should choose potassium chloride or calcium chloride when using a salt as a deicer," Juneau said. "These have less of an environmental impact than sodium chloride, sometimes labeled as Halite."
Another benefit of calcium chloride, Juneau said, is that homeowners need to apply less salt to make the ice melt than they would with sodium chloride.
If salts are needed to remove ice, it is important to try and protect the plants that may come in contact with the salt.
"Prevention is the best way to reduce salt burn on plants that may not be salt tolerant," Juneau said. "In the fall, barriers, such as plastic, burlap bags, fences, can be placed on or near the plants. This will prevent salt spray from contacting the plant."
In the spring, it is also important to take care of the plants that may have come in contact with salt.
"In spring the thing to do is to try to leach out the salt in affected areas through irrigation and hopefully adequate natural spring rains," Zlesak said. "After the soil is sufficiently leached we can replant."
Another option is to use plants that are more salt resistant.
"There are shrubs that are more tolerant than others too, such as rugosa roses," Zlesak said. "No plants want to be assaulted with salt, but some are a little bit better at tolerating these deicers."
However, Juneau warned that some of the salt tolerant plants being used along roadsides can be invasive species and this can have a negative impact as well.
"Salt-tolerant invasive species, such as the non-native Kochia, thrive in these stressed environments along roadside right-of-ways," Juneau said. "The non-native plants can reduce erosion, but they are not good plants for our native bees, butterflies, or other pollinators."
Zlesak said people should try to follow some steps when it comes to using deicers. He said they should try in not overuse deicers, use salts that are less toxic than sodium chloride, consider using sand for traction to reduce use of deicers, remove ice as soon as possible and don't let it build up, and arrange the landscape so salt sensitive plants aren't next to the pavement or roads.
While one person's individual deicer may not seem to have that big of an environmental impact the cumulative effect can be dangerous.
"The amount a single homeowner uses may not have an impact," Juneau said, "but when everyone in neighborhood puts out deicers, it adds up and [has] the potential to affect the environment."