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How Salt-Based Deicers Harm Pets and Children

"Country dogs can play in the snow with no fear of exposure to salts!"

What is the Danger in Salting Your Sidewalk?

We’ve all seen or even used chloride salts to melt ice in the winter. Sure, several of them make that nasty white residue on your boots and carpets, but can they really hurt your dog or even your child?

WHAT IS A SALT?

Salts are chemical compounds that form naturally when a metal joins with a halogen (like chlorine, iodine, or bromine). There are four metals commonly combined with chloride to create deicers. These are sodium, calcium, potassium, and magnesium. Yes, there are metals. They are not practical for making tools like iron, aluminum or copper, but they have the properties which chemically define a metal.

When these salts are dissolved in water they release heat. This is called an exothermic reaction. The Material Safety Data Sheet for calcium chloride lists the contact hazard as “severe.” 1 The products are all skin irritants. Commercial packages are printed with warnings such as “Danger! Keep away from pets and children. Wear rubber gloves and goggles when using. Wash contaminated clothing and call doctor immediately if in contact with eyes or ingested.”

HOW ARE DOGS EXPOSED TO SALTS?

Dogs in city or suburban environments are usually walked on sidewalks in the winter. And cities usually have ordinances which require homeowners to keep their walkways clear. The salt pieces (if rock salt- sodium chloride- is used) or pellets (if the product is sold in pellet form) will stick to their paws. When the ice begins to melt this heat can cause irritation to the pads of their feet.

Dogs can also ingest too much salt because they may eat snow instead of drinking water, or they may drink from puddled water where ice has melted and the salt products are present.

Yet another way dogs ingest the salt is because it sticks to the hairs of their feet in ice balls. Later the dogs lick and chew these ice balls out, and inadvertently take in the salt too.

Calcium chloride, in pure form or combined with other salts, is the familiar white pellets we so often see. Yet calcium chloride, in that exothermic reaction, can heat to 175o F. This can burn a dog’s paw pads, mouth, and even the digestive system causing ulcers.

HOW ARE CHILDREN EXPOSED TO SALTS?

Children usually contact sidewalk salts while playing. They may occasionally ingest a pellet or chunk of salt, but the more common exposure for children is direct contact with the skin or eyes. Children (even some adults) tend to rub their eyes, and it’s no great surprise that salts may have stuck to their mittens before they do this. Irritation can occur due to mechanical abrasion of the eye, but more likely in the form of a burn from the exothermic reaction.

Fortunately the immediate first aid is to dilute the salt with lots of water. Flush eyes, wash skin, drink lots of water. But be sure to seek medical attention as well, especially if the salt was ingested or rubbed in an eye.

Joan H. Young