When using chemical snow melters, think safety first

A sad story recently came to my attention. A reader lost a beloved dog after it was exposed to a chemical snow- and ice-melting product.

The reader had purchased the product specifically because it said "nontoxic." However, because his dog was tiny, it quite possibly licked enough of the product off its feet or inhaled enough product dust to kill it. Whether the product actually killed the animal, or the animal had an existing condition that was exacerbated by ingesting the chemical, is unknown.

Chemical snow- and ice-melting products can make driveways, walkways and decks safer. You'll find these products under a variety of common names at hardware and grocery stores and other outlets.

They usually contain one or more of the following ingredients: calcium chloride, sodium chloride, potassium chloride, magnesium chloride and strontium chloride. These are all salts. In addition, other ingredients are added to make the products stick, spread and pour.

All labels contain comments, such as: With proper use, safe for vegetation and concrete; safer for animals, concrete, plants and the environment; non-damaging ice melt pellets will not break down carpets, floors or leave an oily/white residue when not overapplied; noncorrosive, environmentally friendly; a proven ice melter that is safer for pets; contains anticorrosion agents and chemicals that reduce scaling to concrete; and reduces leather shrinkage to gloves and footwear.

Note the comment "safer for pets," which implies a range of safety. These products have been known to eat concrete, damage leather shoes and gloves, and ruin carpeting. And since most products contain salts, plants and lawns can suffer damage.

I looked up the Materials Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) for some common ice-melt products. Manufacturers are required by law to provide these data sheets, which contain a variety of helpful facts, such as the product's ingredients, health hazards, handling and storage procedures and recommended emergency treatments, should mishandling occur.

If a data sheet doesn't accompany a product you purchase, you can often find it on the Internet. Some health hazards identified on some of the data sheets are: May cause severe irritation with corneal injury; prolonged or repeated contact may cause irritation, even burn; dust may cause upper-respiratory tract irritation; and large amounts taken orally may cause gastrointestinal irritation and ulcer. The effects of overexposure are severe irritation, corneal injury, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting and thermal burns.

Some products can be used without causing injury or harm, but it is very wise to read labels carefully and follow directions exactly.

No one wants to cause injury, so be aware there might be health hazards, especially for small pets and children. Sand or cat litter can be used to melt ice and snow, as alternatives to chemical products.

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For more information, e-mail skellyj@unce.unr.edu or call me at 887-2252. You can "Ask a Master Gardener" by e-mailing mastergardeners@unce.unr.edu or call your local University of Nevada Cooperative Extension office. Check out many useful horticulture publications at www.unce.unr.edu.

JoAnne Skelly is the Carson City/Storey County Extension educator for University of Nevada Cooperative Extension.


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