Sand: What You Need To Know Before Getting In the Sandbox This Summer - A Child Grows

Sand: What You Need To Know Before Getting In the Sandbox This Summer

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My kids happily play in the sand – beach or sandbox – for hours at a time. Now that Jenn has outgrown the sand-eating phase and is almost out of the sand-throwing phase, it’s fun for all of us. I have rolled my eyes at my friend who won’t let her daughters play in the sandbox at our local playground.  I dismissed her distaste for the sandbox as beach snobbery. Though maybe she is on to something.

Being city dwellers and public park users, we overlook sandboxes’ obvious problems:  cats use them as litter boxes and rats use them however they like. Sadly enough, people use them as rest rooms, ashtrays and receptacles for various unsavories:  condoms, crack vials, old Pirate’s Booty and other things we would rather our kids not touch, much less, play in. But germs are everywhere and we have lots of soap at home, I figure.

More troubling is the label on most play sand sold in California, “known …to cause cancer.” I should note that the exact same sand is sold across the country but only California’s Proposition 65 requires the cancer warning to be on the package. The warning is compelling, and scary. The label warns of crystalline silica, the dust of which can cause fatal lung conditions with long-term exposure.

My understanding is that crystalline silica dust in play sand is unlikely as the particles are larger and we are not breathing them in. The documented cases are in industrial settings, where the sand is ground or hammered, resulting in lots of breathable dust over extended periods. There are not conclusive studies on children’s exposure, which definitely begs that more attention be paid.

The sand fight is contentious, as are most disputes regarding the possible safety of our kids. Some resolutely believe we are “sissifying” our kids and are afraid of everything, the “we played in sand as kids and we’re just fine” team. Others are just as staunch in their beliefs that we need to avoid all potentially dangerous situations, regardless of the actual risk.  I tend to walk the middle, and I liked these suggestions to help avert potential silica dust exposure in play sand, which is available everywhere — at toy stores, Home Depot, Lowes, WalMart – 50 lbs for $4.

Of course, there are options if you would like to further control your children’s exposure to crystalline silica-containing sand. Remember, of course, that city parks and playgrounds are using “plain old sand,” though I haven’t heard back from them regarding what kind.

If you have few hundred dollars, you can buy silica free sand, which is crystalline silica dust-free. (I wish I knew if a simple hose could make hardware store variety play sand dust-free as well.) It’s $60 for 50 lbs, shipping included.

If you don’t have any nut allergies, some people recommend crushed walnut shells, which is available at the pet store. It’s 9.99 for 7lbs.

Pea gravel, (tiny pebbles), widely available at gardening and hardware stores, is another way to avoid the whole problem, though you can’t make a sand castle with it. You can, however dig and pour. This seems to be a choking hazard, so perhaps is not best for kids who put everything in their mouths.

And if you were thinking you would sneak some from the beach, know that beach sand is silica, too, though the fine dust would have been washed away by the water. Aside from the questionable legality of such a maneuver, this study shows that beach sand is full of contaminants from birds, sewage and urban run-off.

What to do?  Like everything else, all we can do:  learn what we can and decide what works best for our families.

Do your kids play in the sandbox in the park? And what do you use, if you’re lucky enough to have space for a sandbox or sand table at home?

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  1. No one really knows what causes cancer. And just because the label says it’s known to cause cancer doesn’t mean the sand will cause cancer.

    Water can kill people under the right conditions. Does that mean we need warning labels on water? There have been no known cases of play sand causing cancer.

    Or it would be like saying a giant bolder fell and killed someone so now pebbles have to have warning labels because they are the same thing just different sizes.

    Or when people say “this ingredient is found in jet fuel!” and say we should ingest it. It doesn’t make it unsafe!

  2. I bought sand for my kids from sandtastik. Their website is – the sand quite a bit cheaper than most silica free, and the best part is you can clean the sand so you don’t need to replace all the time! my kids love it

  3. Good question….my thought is that beach sand gets washed in and out by the ocean too- but not sandbox sand. Anyone else want to chime in?

  4. Thanks for this article! No doubt people use just about everything as a public restroom in the city and I’m sure the rats (and other rodents) get right on the slides as much as the sand box- they can jump up to six feet for that tasty granola bar morsel ;-)
    One thought– Doesn’t playground sand essentially get washed by the rain in the same manner that the ocean water is “washing out” sand at the beach?

  5. Walmart has Crayola Play Sand which is 99% dust free and has passed rigorous testing allowing them to sell their product without the label.

  6. Here is a great alternative to sand…I’d use it in a sand table vs. a sandbox…

  7. sells PURE CRUSHED MARBLE it is totally safe for kids
    and a beautiful bright white. Playbox sand is comparable is price to typical sand you would buy from a landscape supply and is available in 50lb bags and by the truckload for playgrounds and schools.

  8. Great article. I had done extensive research on the whole sandbox thing a few years ago and decided it just wasn’t worth the effort & worry—besides, my kids would just be bringing it all in the house, anyway. Aside from the crystalline silica, some brands of sand contain tremolite asbestos, which can put you at risk of lung cancer. I had even called a place here in Brooklyn that sells green building supplies (Green Depot) and they said they would be able to order the silica-free safe sand, to just let them know how many bags I wanted. I never did order. It was pretty pricey. And, yes, it is illegal to take sand from the beaches. We opted against the backyard sandbox. They’ll get enough sand play at our visits to the beach or our occasional visits to Pier 6.


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