The US has been experiencing extreme weather lately, and some of these storms have brought record-breaking amounts of snow to big swaths of the country. Of course the snow has made it onto social media, including pictures of people showing off their “snow cream” and “snow cocktails” creations.
You know not to use the yellow snow in your snowy desserts. But should you even be eating any snow—is it actually safe? We asked a few experts about it.
What is snow, exactly?
First, some background on snow: The pretty white stuff is just precipitation in the form of ice crystals. As the National Snow and Ice Data Center puts it, “once an ice crystal has formed, it absorbs and freezes additional water vapor from the surrounding air, growing into a snow crystal or snow pellet, which then falls to Earth.”
So if you’re catching snow from the sky, it’s basically water, Angeline Pendergrass, PhD, an assistant professor in Cornell University’s Earth and Atmospheric Science Department, tells Health. But thanks to air pollution, it’s possible for substances other than water to get into snow even before it hits the ground.
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OK, but is that reason enough to not eat snow?
Parisa Ariya, PhD, director of the Atmospheric and Interfacial Chemistry Laboratories at McGill University in Canada, says it generally is. “Mostly, I would not encourage eating snow in urban regions or industrial sites because they can be exposed to various types of air pollutants from nanoparticles, metal and organic contaminants, even micro and nano plastics,” she tells Health.
Even if you don’t live near areas that are polluted, the snow that’s falling on you could have picked up pollutants from other areas. “Some gaseous or small airborne particles or aerosols can be transported not only locally, but also regionally and globally. Hence you can be in a remote region and still observe various toxicants in snowfall,” she explains.
So for everyone who showcased their snow cocktails and desserts on Instagram: They may make a pretty picture, but unless you live way out in an unspoiled rural area and you’re sure the air is clean (like you’re really sure), put them on social, but not in your mouth.
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Can snow be used as water in extreme circumstances?
In Texas, this week’s storm has led to widespread power outages and burst pipes, leaving millions of people without running water. Could the snow outside be used for water? Ariya says if there is truly no access to clean water and the snow is the only water source, then make sure to at least remove whatever biological pathogens may be in there.
Pendergrass explains how this can be done: “Going into the backcountry in winter, what you would normally do is melt the snow into water, and then do one of the following to make sure it’s clean of anything biological that might have gotten into it before you collected it: Either boil it for five minutes to kill anything that might be in it, treat it with iodine pills, or use a filter (sold at camping stores).
Keep in mind that while boiling snow may kill anything that’s alive, it won’t take care of other elements that might have gotten into the snow once on the ground, such as gravel or metal. Same goes for icicles. “With icicles, what you would want to think about is: What is the water in your icicles picking up between when they fall from the sky and when they freeze again? What is on your roof that they might have picked up? That’s what I would ask myself before trying to melt down and drink icicles,” Pendergrass says.
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If you’re going to eat snow, here’s what to do
Again, you’ll want to boil it first if you can. But let’s say you can’t or you’re outside and just can’t resist the temptation to take a taste. First, make sure the snow is fresh, like it fell within the last several hours. You also want to make sure you find the cleanest-looking snow you can.
Pendergrass’ colleague at Cornell University, M.Todd Walter, PhD, a professor in the department of biological and environmental engineering, also points out one important thing: don’t use snow in its frozen form as your only source of water. It’s something the CDC recommends against as well. “It can lower your body temperature and cause your metabolism to go out of whack to keep you warm. Same with icicles,” Walter tells Health.
And if you do go looking for some fresh snow, make sure to protect yourself from frostbite. “One needs to wear warm, waterproof gloves when collecting the snow,” Debra Cherry, MD, a physician at Harborview Medical Center and an adjunct associate professor of environmental and occupational health sciences at the University of Washington, tells Health.
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