Safer Play Sand-

Last year, I went to a garden store to pick up a few bags of sand. At a garage sale I had found a sandbox, and I was intent on filling it up and letting my toddler dig, pile and create to her heart’s content.

I got it home, then noticed a label on the bottom of the bag, that read the now famous line, dust from this sand “is known to cause cancer in the state of California.” Annoyed from the wasted time and money, I threw the bags in our garden shed to be returned (where they sit this very minute).

Fast forward to another spring, and thoughts of outdoor play. We have a new play set care of my kid’s generous grandparents. There is a great little spot for a sandbox. I visited my neighbor today, and she had just bought sand that looked less refined then what I had bought, and it didn’t have the warning label. I checked the website of the company, and sure enough, it contained a hazardous material warning. Not on the bag, mind you, but on the website. So folks are buying this sand without knowing that it might be bad for their kids.

So what is the problem? Apparently, most types of play sand contain crystalline silica and asbestos tremolite. The silica is derived from quartz stone and is a known carcinogen. California’s fantastic Prop 65 requires the labeling of carcinogen’s in products for sale in that state.

OSHA (Occupational Health and Safety Administration) says this about crystalline silica, “Silica, Crystalline: Silicosis is a disabling, nonreversible and sometimes fatal lung disease caused by overexposure to respirable crystalline silica. More than one million U.S. workers are exposed to crystalline silica, and each year more than 250 die from silicosis. There is no cure for the disease, but it is 100 percent preventable if employers, workers, and health professionals work together to reduce exposures.” Apparently, the small pieces of silica can be inhaled and trapped in lung tissue. To see the California label, and to learn more about silica, visit

Asbestos tremloite is a form of asbestos, and puts kids at risk of developing a lung cancer that is mostly caused by limited absestos exposure, and this risk can continue for decades. According to the Green Guide, and Philip Landrigan, M.D., director of the Center for Children’s Health and the Environment at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, children breathe proportionally more air than adults, and they play close to the ground, thus increasing their exposure significantly. Think about kids playing in sandboxes, they literally sit in it, are constantly pouring and creating dust (and c’mon, they’re kids–many times, they are eating it!), therefore ingesting and breathing in these carcinogens.

It completely boggles my mind that this sand is being sold labeled and unalabeled, right now, all over the U.S. I think if parents knew about this most of them wouldn’t buy it.

So what to do? CHEC’s HealtheHouse shares some good tips for what to do. The kind of play sand that can have these two carcinogens is made from crushed rock, so look for river or beach sand, usually found at landscape and gardening stores. This is what I will be doing. Also, there is a company called Safe Sand that sells sand without tremoite and silica (but unfortunately it is expensive). In the very least, avoid very fine sand that gives off easily ingested dust.

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30 Responses to Safer Play Sand-

  1. SuperSaverSusan May 26, 2008 at 7:05 am #

    I've heard of people using crushed walnut shell as an alternative. We don't have any experience with this as we live in the desert!

  2. Tamar May 26, 2008 at 8:24 am #

    Hi Katy, I found Non-Toxic Kids via Eco Child's Play and I am so glad I did – we are in the market for a sandbox and I shudder to think that my son could be playing with this stuff. I just saw your post on car seats, something else that just didn't cross my mind when I was researching fire retardant chemicals in baby products. Thank you for doing this valuable legwork!

  3. Brenna May 26, 2008 at 11:53 am #

    Oh my gosh, thank you for this post! I had no idea! We don't have a sandbox at our home, but my son's preschool and some of the local parks do. It makes me wonder…

  4. Katy Farber May 26, 2008 at 5:56 pm #

    Susan, Brenna, and Tamar, Thanks for your comments! I'm glad you found the post helpful. I too wonder about the sand at preschools and playgrounds. My hunch is that is contains this harmful stuff, because it doesn't seem like there is a whole lot of awareness about it. I'm going to see what I can find around here for natural sand, and I'll post or comment here if I learn anything new.

  5. Christina May 27, 2008 at 9:25 am #

    I just read in a craft book (Salvage Sisters, I think) that we can use uncooked rice grains in our own sandbox at home. It is safe and edible afterwards.But for the skyrocketing rice prices, it would be a great place to store the rice. 🙂

  6. shel May 27, 2008 at 5:06 pm #

    love the rice idea! but i, too, was unsure how safe 'sandbox sand' really was and now i know! thanks, katy. i will check out safe sand's website..

  7. Katy Farber May 27, 2008 at 6:11 pm #

    I love the rice idea, and would try the walnut shells if I didn't have a nut allergic child! Maybe some small gravel or stones would do the trick. Not great for building, but good for pouring, scooping, etc.

  8. The Freak of Nature May 30, 2008 at 5:35 am #

    I ran to check out what kind of sand was in my shed and though the bag said it said it was "non-toxic" it also said this sand cannot be sold in California without any mention of its potential danger. Bummer!

  9. Katy Farber May 31, 2008 at 6:21 pm #

    freak of nature, A classic case of greenwashing! Ha, non-toxic, they seem to want to put that on everything these days (even the names of blogs!). I am sorry that happened to you.

  10. Anonymous July 5, 2008 at 6:39 am #

    In Orange County CA we handleSilica free crushed Marble

  11. Anonymous June 25, 2009 at 12:27 pm #

    – the silica dust is only dangerous if breathed into lungs. eating it is not dangerous.- the dust will be a problem only if the sand gets very dry. Dry sand is no fun to play with anyway – just keep it moist & there will be no danger of breathing it in.- clean hands after playing in the sand (rinse with water is fine) so the sand residue doesn't dry onto them.- the "safe" sands just have a different kind of dust (from the different materials they use rather than common industrial sand) – this does not mean they are safe to breathe. It only means that they haven't been used in an OSHA-covered workplace for years & years and thus haven't been around long enough for known issues to develop.- marble sand is essentially the same as coarse grind of agricultural lime…it will also be dubious to breathe & in addition, drying to the skin.

  12. Jonathan, Rachel, Gr April 2, 2010 at 4:57 pm #

    Thanks for such an informative post. I originally searched out this article looking for information about beach sand (we live 1 block from the beach in California). I have heard about lead and heavy metal contaminants in the sand there. Are you familiar with this? I know you suggested using beach sand (as it wouldn't have any of the silica) but I wonder about the other concerns associated with it. For now, we are using bulk rice from Costco in our sand and water table. Doesn't have the building effects, though .:(Your thoughts appreciated…

  13. Jonathan, Rachel, Gr April 2, 2010 at 5:09 pm #

    I also wanted to let you know about this totally non-toxic sand I found, which is exactly half the price of the SafeSand. :),com_virtuemart/page,shop.browse/category_id,10/Itemid,29/vmcchk,1/

  14. Anonymous August 23, 2011 at 1:10 pm #

    Hi, I'm a geologist and someone just asked me about silica free sand…so I found this post. Seems like most of you think silica is ADDED to sand…when in fact, natural sand IS Silica. Silica is an element that makes up rocks and minerals like quartz and granite, which are very hard minerals, hence, after all the soft minerals are eroded by water and dissolved, the silica minerals are left…and guess what that pile of minerals left after thousands of years of erosion is? Beach sand…that is what sand is…asking for sand that doesn't have silica in it is like asking for water that doesn't have hydrogen in it.You may be able to find an alternative, and that would be great, I'm not defending natural sand, but don't be confused about the silica in sand…it is a natural component of sand, no one is trying to 'put one over on the consumer'

  15. Katy Farber August 23, 2011 at 5:32 pm #

    Hi, anonymous,Thanks for commenting. I'm glad to have a geologist here! From my research I found the difference here is that most play sand for sale is mined in industrial quartz mines, and the silica is actually crystalline silica from that process, in very small, inhale-able amounts. The natural sand I am advocating here is what you can find in natural settings, not mines. It is likely to have larger particles are are harder for kids to inhale. Thanks again for visiting and commenting!Katy

  16. Anonymous October 3, 2011 at 3:14 pm #

    You can get Playbox Sand from it is 99.9% silica free and is made from PURE CRUSHED MARBLE it is totally safe for children and very comparable in price to typical sand which is unsafe.It is available in 50lb bags and can be delivered by the truckload for

  17. Anonymous November 6, 2012 at 11:39 am #

    How accurate is this post?From what I have read, the silica in sand box sand is above 200 micrometers. Which is above "dust size" and therefore not breathable.That being said, I'm about to fill my son's sandbox and don't want to put him in harms way.But it just seems that this article relies solely on the warning label which seems to have derived from exposure to silica in working mining conditions for long hours and lots of years in confined spaces with silica dust.

  18. Dale Terreberry November 20, 2012 at 5:15 am #

    Hi All!Please visit, <a href="<br />100% safe play sand – contains no quartz, no asbestos, no free silica, no wheat and no nuts.We are have a 30% OFF special for Black Friday. Please see for details.Enjoy the ‘World’s Safest Sand’ in natural, sparkling white color!#1 in education – allergy free, clean sand for indoor sandtables and sensory tables at preschools, child care centres, hospitals and therapeutic offices. Sandtastik® play sand can also be used for outdoor sandboxes, playgrounds and at home.Thank you!

  19. Al Alvera February 1, 2013 at 1:52 am #

    My girl is safe on natural sand.

  20. Good Girl Gone Green April 22, 2013 at 3:37 am #

    I had no idea! Thank Katy!

  21. Good Girl Gone Green April 22, 2013 at 3:38 am #

    I had no idea! Thank Katy!

  22. What Is Silica December 23, 2014 at 10:41 am #

    Katy, Thank you very much. Great article

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