The Chesapeake Bay most likely will escape serious harm from the megatons of salt and smattering of fertilizer and other try-anything substances used to fight ice on roadways, driveways and sidewalks, environmentalists say.
But they continue to emphasize that homeowners should avoid using fertilizer because its nitrogen and phosphorus add to the nutrient pollution that already is a major problem in the Chesapeake.
Salt does less damage to streams, rivers and the bay; but too much of it on driveways and sidewalks could mean some shriveled shrubs and sickly lawns in the spring.
"Putting fertilizer on ice and snow is almost like putting it directly into the bay," said Elliott Finkelstein, spokesman for the Environmental Protection Agency's Chesapeake Bay Program office in Annapolis.
Abrasives like ashes, sand and cinders produce traction. They also contribute to silt in streams and rivers. But this probably is less harmful to the bay than products containing nitrogen and phosphorus.
In the Chesapeake, those nutrients stimulate algae growth, which clouds the water and deprives marine life of oxygen.
"What makes our lawns green also makes our rivers green," said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, Maryland director of Clean Water Action, a national environmental group. "In winter, none of that fertilizer is absorbed in the ground. It ends up hitting our tributaries."
At her house, Ms. Schmidt-Perkins said, the antidote for ice is cat-box litter and "child power; we send out the kids to chip away."
Public works departments report having used record quantities of road salt -- at least 230,000 tons by the city, five surrounding counties and the State Highway Administration.
"Everything we use has its drawbacks ecologically," said Tom Hamer, acting public works director in Baltimore County. "But we have to try to make the roads safe."
Large quantities of salt can increase salinity in small waterways, but the increase probably is short term and not very harmful to the Chesapeake.
"Road salt could throw things off in small [waterways]," said Jackie Savitz, a staff scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "If salinity in a small creek or pond gets too high, it could, in extreme situations, affect aquatic life."
Homeowners who use rock salt probably are hurting their own lawns and shrubs more than any larger ecosystem.
Salt puts a lot of stress on plants," said Ms. Schmidt-Perkins of Clean Water Action. "Come spring, there will be some really damaged lawns and bushes.
Tom Burke, director of the state's Chesapeake Bay Communications Office, pointed out that Marylanders can protect themselves against falls and look out for the environment.
"The trick is to get out of your house safely without hurting the bay," he said.
"If you can't chip the ice, use sand. If that doesn't work, go to rock salt or chemicals. And if that doesn't work, well, I'd have to really need to get out of the house before I'd use fertilizer."
Baltimore area residents used an amazing array of products to help them negotiate the hazardous distance from front door to car door or bus stop: chicken feed and birdseed; rock salt and table salt; fertilizer, sand and potting soil, to name a few.
"They'll take anything that's not bolted down -- play sand, cat litter, even table salt. No matter what we put out there, it's gone," said Cory Stephens, manager of Ace Hardware and Crafts in Eldersburg. "We went through 19,000 pounds of rock salt in four hours."
At the Home Depot in Catonsville, a midweek delivery of rock salt triggered a buying frenzy as people lined up with shopping carts to fill their five-bag quota. Forty thousand pounds of salt disappeared in less than five hours.
At Clark's Do-It Center in Ellicott City, there was a run on pea gravel, used mainly in drainage ditches. In less-populated areas, some people turned to farm supply stores, purchasing everything from pelleted limestone to crushed oyster shell to spread on sidewalks and driveways.
"They're even buying Barn Grip, a substance used by farmers to keep their cows from slipping," said Calvin Day, manager of Farm & Home Service in Sykesville.