Yes, it looks like ice cream, but even fresh snow is packed full of potentially hazardous pollutants.
If you remember nothing else from the Little House on the Prairie books, you probably remember the magical scene in Little House in the Big Woods where Laura and Mary Ingalls transform a fresh snowfall into candy:
“One morning [Ma] boiled molasses and sugar together until they made a thick syrup, and Pa brought in two pans of clean, white snow from outdoors. Laura and Mary each had a pan, and Pa and Ma showed them how to pour the dark syrup in little streams on to the snow. They made circles, and curlicues, and squiggledy things, and these hardened at once and were candy.”
It sounds delicious, but keep in mind: this was Wisconsin in the 1870s. Trying to source this rustic recipe from the snowbank outside your apartment in 2016 will probably earn you some suspicious glances—and is likely not the greatest thing for your health.
In a first-of-its-kind study published this past December in Environmental Science, McGill researchers examined the effect of snow and freezing temperatures on air pollutants. They found that when temperatures dip and snow banks rise, emission-derived compounds accumulate in the drifts.
Given that atmospheric exposure to vehicle exhaust can, according to the study, drive up lifetime risk of developing cancer, it’s probably in your best interest not to ingest it.
While Kevin McGuire, an associate professor of hydrology at Virginia Tech, notes that pollutants are likely more prevalent in urban snow, he tells CityLab that exhaust pollutants pile up even in remote, snowy regions like European mountain ranges.
If this news at all comes as a surprise, it shouldn’t: it’s yet another example of how the same carbon emissions behind global climate change are thwarting our enjoyment of natural phenomena.
The next time you feel the need for a snow cone, head to your freezer instead of the sidewalk.