“When I lick my lips, I taste salt,” said Lisa O’Donoghue-Lindy, 42, of Chevy Chase. “If I rub my eyes with my gloves, it stings.”
The Washington region looks as if it had emerged from some ancient mineral sea, Salt Lake City without the lake.
Since the first flakes of the season, back in November, Maryland road crews have spread more than 280,000 tons of salt on state highways, Virginia has put down 112,000 tons and the District 24,000 tons. That doesn’t include dozens of local jurisdictions and hundreds of thousands of homeowners salting side roads and sidewalks and driveways — along with our shoes and suits and shrubs. When it snows, it pours.
“It’s almost like a cloud when people drive down the road,” said Jim McDonald, a Woodbridge veterinarian who has been fielding calls from owners worried about salt-encrusted pets and who has treated a few cases of severe electrolyte imbalance in paw-licking dogs. “We’ve seen more of it in the last two weeks than we’ve seen in years.”
The winter of the polar vortex has deposited more salt on the roads than we’ve experienced for a while, and it is hanging around longer than usual. Highway officials blame the frequency and type of storm for the heavy coatings. Maryland, for example, has deployed salt crews 23 times in the past 10 weeks, flinging more sodium (and sometimes magnesium) chloride every third day on average. And with the intense cold, the storms haven’t brought the slushy snow or the following rains that usually carry the chemicals away.
“You’re seeing so much of it because we’ve gone so long without anything wet enough to get this stuff off the road,” said Maryland State Highway Administration spokesman Dave Buck.
And so we pine — and brine — for wetter weather to rescue us from Planet Sodium. Until then, speed bumps will be camouflaged, crosswalks invisible and dark clothing imperiled. But dry cleaners, rug cleaners and carwashes will thrive.
“It’s been ungodly,” Randy Evans, manager of the Seabrook Touchless Car Wash in Lanham, said of demand. Business has tripled, and he has doubled his staff of car wipers to 40. Customers are less worried about rust than they are worried about their clothes, he said. “Paint finishes and undercarriage coatings have really gotten a lot better in the last few years.”
“One brush against these cars, and you’re covered in white dust,” Evans said. “The lines have been incredible.”
On Friday, the backup at a Georgia Avenue carwash blocked the street and made the morning traffic reports. John Cashman, a work-at-home editor on Connecticut Avenue in Northwest Washington, saw tempers flare at the Flagship Car Wash outside his window. At one point, he noticed an elderly woman get out of her car to confront the driver of a Mini Cooper.
“She was pointing right at his windshield,” Cashman said. “It was full-on road rage in the line for a carwash.”
Dog walkers are stressed, too. Many find themselves nursing reluctant pets through the salt, sometimes carrying them over the worst of it. McDonald, of the Woodbridge Animal Hospital, suggests cleaning their paws with baby wipes when the limping starts. Don’t let them lick.
Lisa Amore, a publicist in Shaw, said her little Bruno walked like “a Lipizzaner stallion” until she carried him to a pet store for a pair of waterproof socks with latex soles. It took Amore and two clerks to get them on the dubious poodle, but then . . .
“After walking like 10 feet, he was like: ‘Wow, I can walk outside. Wow, I can go to the bathroom,’ ” Amore said.
Lori Roman would like to add a dash of pro-salt perspective. The president of the Alexandria-based Salt Institute, a trade group, wants to remind everyone that all this sodium has saved the region from catastrophe. She cites a Marquette University study that credits effective road salting with reducing winter storm crashes by 88 percent and injuries by 85 percent. She points to the recent mayhem on the unsalted highways of Georgia and Alabama.
“Road salt keeps people safe and cars safe,” Roman said. “The need to wash your car after a storm is a minor trade-off for the benefit of still having a car to wash.”
Of course, it’s not just cars and clothes people wonder about.
“Where does all this go?” asked Erika Young, a Capitol Hill resident. “We see the signs on all the drains that they lead to the Chesapeake Bay.”
According to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the effect of road salt on the bay is minimal. The bay, which is already salty, can absorb fluctuations in the chloride levels. But studies of freshwater streams, including some around Baltimore, have shown consistently elevated levels of chlorides, which can be toxic to aquatic life, said Beth McGee, the foundation’s senior scientist. She has seen no evidence of direct harm to plants or animals but worries about the potential long-term effect.
“You have to make a balanced choice,” McGee said. “You don’t want to jeopardize public safety [by not salting the roads]. But homeowners could shovel their walks and use sand instead of bags of salt. We have to be mindful of how we use it.”
Highway officials say they are doing just that. Modern plows sport zero-velocity spreaders, which throw less salt when the driver slows down. Temperature sensors embedded in the pavement show exactly how much treatment is needed, when and at what mixtures. Pre-treating roads with brine before the freeze prevents ice from bonding and reduces the amount of salt needed later. Even just wetting the salt keeps it from bouncing wastefully off the asphalt.
“We definitely use less salt per lane mile than we did even 10 years ago,” Buck said.
For now, the forecast doesn’t offer much hope of a rinse-off, although Monday may bring another dusting of snow. And that will mean . . .
Patricia Sullivan and Susan Svrluga contributed to this report.