Uncovering the Truth About Toxic Sandboxes

sandboxI got an email from my local granola-mom store announcing that they had a new product, and we should act fast if we wanted to get our hands on it. It was called Safe Sand, and it was supposed to help your sandbox be free of a carcinogenic dust called crystalline silica.



The email raised my alarm bells. If there’s one thing I hate, it’s companies trying to make a buck off of my parental anxiety. On the other hand, if there’s another thing I hate, it’s companies putting toxic crapola in kids’ products and counting on my blind trust. So I set out to find out the truth about Safe Sand.

But unlike Mulder, Scully, and The X-Files, I was sad to find that the truth wasn’t out there.

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My store claimed that most play sand contains silica, which they said is “a colorless mineral, also called quartz ... exposure to crystalline silica dust can cause lung diseases such as silicosis.” They cited a California health warning, Proposition 65, that states: “This product contains crystalline silica which is ‘known to the State of California to cause cancer and other substances which are known to cause cancer, birth defects, and reproductive harm.’”

I made a call to the Consumer Products Safety Commission, where spokesperson Carl Purvis confirmed that most sand “does contain crystalline silica,” but said that the warnings are directed toward “people who do hazardous work, such as miners, construction workers, or sandblasters” — people who pulverize rock into particles smaller than three microns in diameter.

“We can’t vouch for what the manufacturer of Safe Sand claims,” he said. But he recommended these steps to make any home sandbox safer:

  • Buy play sand rather than all-purpose sand for use in children’s sandboxes, because it is generally screened and washed, which is going to remove a lot of the smaller particles.
  • Keep the sand a bit damp, to keep down dust and fine particles.
  • Use it outdoors, which he thought would go without saying — but since I have friends in snowy climes who have been known to get a bit stir-crazy in winter, well, I think it’s worth saying.

I have to say that the warning itself doesn’t raise my eyebrows. Here in California, those warnings are on everything — they’re on the windows of new cars, pasted at the top of the aisles of every “big-lots” type store, even on the door of the hospital where I gave birth twice. I guess it was supposed to alert consumers to possible toxins, but the warnings are so ubiquitous, they’re like wallpaper — I’ve ceased to see them. I looked into the warning, and this legal site says it was enacted in 1986 just so people would know where toxic stuff might turn up, but makes no claims about the level or threat of those toxins. Great.

Still, as I thought about it, even if the silica in my play sand wasn’t microscopic enough to have a proven effect on my kids’ lungs, this sufficiently raised my alarm bells. After all, who would have thought play structures would have arsenic in them at levels high enough to be detected in kids’ bloodstreams? Careful is as careful does.

Then I did a search of play sand. My local Lowe’s has two kinds; both run about $5 for 50 pounds, but neither said “silica-free.” In fact, the second one was actually called “silica.” Yikes. None of the other hardware stores had a play-sand labeled silica-free.

On the other hand, at $50 for 50 pounds at my local store (and $58.88 from Safe Sand), Safe Sand is literally 10 times more expensive. I searched around for “silica-free sand” in my area and couldn’t find any in a quick search. I did find silica-free Santastik White Play Sand, $17.04 for 25 pounds on Amazon (but shipping is almost $20, which makes the cost prohibitive — and this seems to be the same company as Safe Sand).

So this comes down to: Do you have the cash to make your kids’ environment slightly safer? If so, is it smart to spend it that way? For a one-time expenditure, maybe it’s not such a big deal. I’d probably spring for the good stuff and then feel like an idiot and hope my mom didn’t ask me about it.

On the other hand, I let my kids play in the sandbox at the playground, where feral cats and drunk teenagers have been known to spend their evenings. And on one memorable occasion, my sister’s babysitter even found a syringe at her local playground. So maybe a little backyard silica is preferable to cat poop and heroin?

Would you spring for safer sand, or does this sound like alarmist nonsense to you?

Image via © iStock.com/timsa 

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