Rock salt is highly effective at melting snow and ice.
If ingested, rock salt can sicken people and animals.
Wet rock salt can cause salt burn, but protective gear can help.
Use a “less is more” approach when applying rock salt.
Rock salt alternatives include pet-safe deicers and heated driveways.
Nobody wants to worry about slipping and falling outside during the frigid winter months. Rock salt is great at melting away ice and snow on your property, but it does come with some risk.
Here’s how to protect yourself—and your property— from rock salt dangers.
What Is Rock Salt?
Rock salt is a deicer salt that melts ice. It’s extremely effective thanks to a chemical reaction when the primary ingredients, potassium chloride or sodium chloride, interact with low temperatures and water. The result? The temperature rises to 175 F.
Unfortunately, this same chemical reaction also makes rock salt dangerous to humans, animals, building materials, and the environment, according to the National Poison Control Center and many other sources.
What Are the Health Risks of Ingesting Rock Salt?
Rock salt ingestion can cause vomiting, coughing fits, loose stools, and more. Kids are more susceptible to these risks than adults, due to their immature immune systems. It’s easy to accidentally ingest deicer, as the particles get small enough to carry in the air. Protect yourself by wearing a mask when shoveling snow, breaking up ice, or applying rock salt.
Here’s what to do if you accidentally ingest rock salt:
Children: Kids who breathe in or swallow rock salt need immediate medical attention—so contact emergency services.
Adults: Call a doctor or poison control if symptoms are severe, or persistent.
Rock Salt and Skin Reactions
Rock salt causes burns, rashes, and skin irritations if it contacts bare human skin. When rock salt is dry, the effects are minimal, akin to a minor rash. Wet rock salt, however, leads to painful burns called “salt burn.” To prevent accidental contact with rock salt, wear protective gear during applications. This gear includes heavy-duty work gloves, boots, a mask, and eyewear. Also, keep rock salt in an airtight container before and after use, to minimize accidents.
Here’s what to do if rock salt contacts your skin:
Wet Rock Salt: Contact emergency services if a child or adult comes into physical contact with wet rock salt.
Dry Rock Salt: Keep an eye on any burn symptoms to ensure they lessen on their own. One or two pebbles won’t cause any issues, so wipe them off with a dry cloth as soon as you can.
Do not wash or rinse it off.
Pet Health Problems With Rock Salt
Unfortunately, our furry friends, and even our furry acquaintances, are not immune to the dangers associated with rock salt. Four-legged animals step on the substance during walks, putting them at risk for salt burn. Pets also tend to lick their paws, leading to accidental ingestion. Both are dangerous, but ingestion leads to diarrhea, vomiting, seizures, fatigue, unusual drooling, disorientation, and long-term damage to the gastrointestinal tract. Sodium toxicosis (salt poisoning) is also common among pets that have ingested rock salt.
Here’s how to keep your pet from ingesting rock salt, and what to do if they do:
Minimize dog walks during the winter months, and keep a close eye on them outside.
Make sure they don’t drink from puddles, and put them in paw protectors.
Immediately wipe down their paws once inside.
If contact does occur, call a vet or animal emergency service immediately.
Rock Salt Risks to Property and the Environment
Rock salt is also a headache when it comes to potential damage to property.
How to Protect Your Property
Salt-based deicers leave behind a salt residue, which builds up over time and damages asphalt, pavement, wood decks, and your floors. Rock salt carpet stains are also a concern if your shoes drag it into your house. This substance also scorches plants if applied on any surfaces close to vegetated areas, so your lawn and/or garden are at risk.
Here’s how to keep your property safe from rock salt damage:
Work slowly, thoroughly, and do not exceed the manufacturer’s recommendations regarding dosage amounts.
To minimize risk to exterior structures, use a rock salt spreader with a built-in guard.
Shovel snow early and often. The more you shovel, the less of a chance that ice forms, reducing the need for a deicer in the first place.
How to Protect The Environment
Rock salt is dangerous to your lawn and outdoor space, true, but the danger also extends to the rest of the world. When applied in large quantities, rock salt brine finds its way into groundwater supplies, thus harming aquatic animals, nearby vegetation, and more. The substance also draws in any surrounding water, making it harder for local root systems to receive necessary nutrients. In rare cases, rock salt even infects drinking water supplies for the entire community.
Here’s how to avoid environmental damage from rock salt:
Follow the manufacturer’s recommendations and only use rock salt when absolutely necessary, erring on the side of good old-fashioned shoveling as the first line of defense.
Remember that the worst dangers to the environment occur with large doses.
Store rock salt in an airtight container at room temperature when not in use to minimize the risk of accidental discharge.
What Are the Alternatives to Rock Salt?
So you’ve read the above list and don’t want to risk using rock salt on and around your property. Here are some alternatives to try.
Deicing Products That Are Safer Than Rock Salt
Rock salt is not the only ice-melting hero on the block—there are a few safer alternatives. Ice melt is safer for your property and the environment, as it is less corrosive than rock salt, though both products represent a danger for physical harm. There are also multiple pet-safe deicers out there, most of which count magnesium chloride or calcium chloride as active ingredients. These chlorides boast a lower freezing temperature than rock salt, minimizing the risk of experiencing something akin to a salt burn.
Heated Driveways and Sidewalk Mats
Installing a heated driveway is a great way to automatically deice one of the most commonly used sections of your yard, all without the use of rock salt. Heated driveways cost around $12 to $21 per square foot to install. A full heated driveway costs an average of $3,900. A less expensive option? Purchase sidewalk or driveway heating mats, with mats covering a whole driveway maxing out at around $1,000 and smaller units covering sidewalks costing anywhere from $100 to $500. However, there is also electricity to consider as these mats are plugged in for use.
Professional Snow Removal
You don’t have to handle snow and ice on your own. You can contact a local snow removal specialist instead of mucking about with rock salt and other dangers. An annual snow removal contract costs around $350 to $450. You can ask them to be extra judicious regarding the use of rock salt or to simply avoid the product entirely.