Cleaner Living: Cancer in the Sandbox

So we bloggers have our own little community where we ask questions of one another and bounce ideas around:

“When did your little one start sleeping through the night?”

“Is such and such normal for this developmental milestone?”

“Any suggestions for play sand that doesn’t cause cancer?”

Wait, what?!?!

This was a question put out to us by our blogger Stephanie.   For the last 2 weeks, her daughters have been happily playing in their sandbox, when she noticed this warning on the bag:

"Oh yeah, I'll just make sure she wears her RESPIRATOR while she plays. No big." - Stephanie

This was concerning to a lot of us.  My kids love the beach and the sand, and I know at least Ava’s daycare has a sandbox and indoor sand tables, so this was of great concern to me.  I asked Steph if I could write a Cleaner Living post about this and she graciously agreed.

Common “play sand” that can be found in Home Depot and Lowes is not really sand.  It is made of crystalline silica which is basically crushed quartz, and a known carcinogen and can cause a lung disease known as silicosis.  Some brands, such as Quickrete, have also been known to contain tremolite asbestos which when inhaled can lead to increased lung cancer risks.  While there are regulations in place by OSHA and the EPA for use of crystalline silica in industrial situations, there are hardly any regulations for its use in consumer products like children’s “play sand.”

The warnings on the bag are thanks to Proposition 65 in California that “regulates substances officially listed by California as causing cancer or birth defects or other reproductive harm.”  It prohibits businesses from “knowingly discharging listed substances into drinking water sources, or onto land where the substances can pass into drinking water sources…and prohibits businesses from knowingly exposing individuals to listed substances without providing a clear and reasonable warning.”

Hence the warning on the bag that Stephanie bought.  But the label does not accompany every bag of “play sand” as it is really only a requirement in the state of CA.  If you go to Quickrete’s Play Sand website it only describes its sand as, ” a specially graded washed sand that has been dried and screened, for children’s sand boxes.”  You have to click on a PDF labeled “MSDS Document” to find any information about its ingredients and warnings, “Crystalline silica (quartz) is not known to be an environmental hazard. Crystalline silica (quartz) is incompatible with hydrofluoric acid, fluorine, chlorine trifluoride or oxygen difluoride. Note: Keeping Play Sand damp eliminates the hazards associated with its dust.”

Keeping play sand damp?!?!  I’m not sure about your kids, but mine are digging in, dumping out, and generally getting covered in sand when they play with it (not to mention the occasional handful that makes its way into their mouths).  There have been many times I have picked up Ava from daycare to find her head covered in sand.  I’m pretty sure she is inhaling this stuff and it scares the CRAP out of me!

So other than filling up baggies at the beach what can you do?

–  First, stop using any play sand that does not label its ingredients clearly.  If you don’t know what’s in it, don’t use it.

–   Ask your daycare provider to do the same.  I talked to the teachers and director today and they were equally concerned and wanted to use alternatives.  I was quite alarmed by the story of when they put the sand in the sand table and the “big white dust cloud” appears.

– Purchase your sand from your local landscaping  companies that sell river sand and/or beach sand.  These are usually sterilized and to not contain silica or tremolite.

– You can find silica and tremolite free brands here at SafeSand and Sandtasik.  They are a bit pricier than the brands found in Home Depot and Lowes, but maybe you can get a cheaper price by buying in bulk and sharing the cost with other families or your daycare provider.

–  A recipe for homemade sand can be found here.  I will be trying this out and will let you know how it works!

23 thoughts on “Cleaner Living: Cancer in the Sandbox

  1. I worked in the oil fields of North Dakota. We used millions (no exaggeration, upwards of 3 million pounds of sand per well) of pounds of sand. Silicosis is a serious condition, but is no danger from the exposure levels that kids experience.

    I found this site when I built a sandbox for my 3 year old. My wife worried about him, having heard about silicosis. Maysie is absolutely correct. Your kids can not get cancer from their sandbox. Don’t buy into the culture of fear.

  2. Mark

    I discovered the tremolite asbestos in Quickrete play sand. It was taken off the market but still may be in some sandboxes. There is at least one case of a man who contracted mesothelioma and his only known asbestos exposure was the sand, who was exposed around 1986-1990 and is likely dead by now.

  3. The thing is, natural sand – like the kind you play in at the beach – contains silica. Sand is silica – basic chemistry. The bad sand you buy in bags at Home Depot and Lowes is basically crushed rock, which creates lost of dust. Those same stores also carry natural sand – such as Sakrete, which is basically the sand you find at the beach. It’s not silica free though, silica free “sand” isn’t really sand, which is fine – you can also fill sandboxes with rice, or beans, or other stuff (google it, people are creative). But, if your kids play at the beach – they are also exposed to silica. Silicosis however is usually found in adults who work in mines, or with ceramics (yes, think of the poor ceramics and art teachers at your schools), it hasn’t been seen as a risky source of cancer in kids.

  4. I gave up on sand this summer, I tried to post a review of the Quickrete “play sand” on Home Depot’s website. I basically stated that it contained crystalline silica, which was not safe. My product review was rejected and not posted. All of the moms I know buy it because it is labeled as play sand and it is cheap. The other brands that are safe a so expensive! I will look into river sand next spring. Thank you.

  5. thewrightsteph, I never said everything our parents did was safe and ok to still do now. Yes, there is a lot of things that have changed over the years that we do differently now due to the fact that we know it will help us and our children; care seats and smoking are a great example. And most of those are done because research showed the benefits or changing the way things were done. We all know smoking is bad and it is much safer to put your child in a car seat then place them on your lap. I was lucky enough to actually grow up around a family where no one smoked and we had a car seat. Nothing like the ones now but it was a car seat. I have to say I know many people who have children who still smoked while pregnant and around them. I don’t think it is right, but it’s their decision. Yes, research shows how harmful it can be, but we raise our children the way we want to and feel is right. Things do change over the years but doesn’t always mean they are better. Just like the vaccine debate. Many choose not to because of the possibility of side effects their child may have. Yet most, if not all, the parents were vaccinated while growing up. Is it better to vaccinate or not to vaccinate? Who really knows right now, but whichever they choose it is their decision.
    Just like using this sand, it is your decision if your child plays in it or not. It is good to know the facts about what the sand is made out of, but everyone most realize it is in all dirt and sand on earth. So you will never totally be able to avoid it unless you never breath in any dust, dirt, or sand from earth.

  6. Thank you for sharing this – we just got a new sandbox and I’m so glad I read this in time before I went out and bought sand at the regular store – I think this is something I need to share with my readers and friends too! 🙂

  7. Arlene, same kind of thing happens with food. Kraft for instance makes two versions of its Mac and Cheese…one for the US and one for the UK because there are additives and coloring they are allowed to put in it here that are not allowed there.

    1. I have heard that. I use to work with few wormen from Britain and they use to have a medication shiped over for their children. It was similar to tylenol but had a sleeping add in it as well. It is banded in the US but Britain uses it all the time.
      There is so many differnet regulations all over the world you really don’t know what is and what isn’t safe.
      But one thing I always say, we all lived with what we grewup with and so did our parents. We want to make the best for our children but if we survived it so will they.

      1. Arlene, I have to respectfully disagree with part of your reply. There are so many things that our parents did that we don’t do now simply because things are different now. When you know better, you do better. My mother smoked from the time she was 12 until she died six years ago… including during both of her pregnancies. My sister and I survived, but I wouldn’t recommend it. I also came home from the hospital in her lap. And sat in the front seat of the car when I was two. And never wore sunscreen. And never flossed my teeth. And so on and so on. Just because I survived doesn’t mean it’s okay, right?

  8. I’m curious how you make out with the homemade sand which is made from coffee. That’s gonna make for some hyper kids won’t it?

  9. Great information, I actually never realized this. But I just wanted to add, even though river sand or beach sand is not made of 100% crystalline silica, aka quartz; it has quartz in it. Quartz is the second-most-abundant mineral on Earth and is found all over (even in the dirt in your yard). Yes, it is crushed for the play sand, it also gets crushed at the beach and in your yard over the years. So eventhough using river sand or beach sand would have less quartz,still will contain it and could also contain other bacteria and harmful things unless it has been treated and cleaned.

    1. Good info Arlene. I think I remember in my research that you can find washed sand at landscaping places but I guess that wouldn’t treat bacteria. Another alternative I’ve heard about is using peastone but that wouldn’t work for kids who still put things in their mouths.

      1. I actually looked up some alternatives and one place suggested oatmeal (Not sure how that would last overtime outside even in a covered sandbox), rice, crushed walnut shells sold at pet stores, flaxseed from a horse & feed store, fish rocks from a pet store, corn, and also have heard of using rubber mulch (but I would think would be kind of toxic since most are made of used tires).
        The toxins come from the dust of the quartz, so breating in the dust is the problem. I have read that if you get a good quality play sand it is treated to minamize the dust but of course that does not get ride of it 100%. Any time you breat in dust from any dirt you will be breating in 100% crystalline silica, aka quartz. I have read that the amount you would have to breath in to actually be effected would be a lot more then the average person breaths in. The hazard comes from constant exposure, such as someone who mines quartz for a living.

      2. Lots of the ones at the landscape store will be washed and sterilized… at least that is how they market it.

        Also, my biggest concern with all of these toxins is that most of the time when they say “oh, it’s completely safe for humans,” they are referring to adult studies (or no studies at all, just adults). My concern with this sand (and other toxins in general) is the impact on teeny bodies with developing lungs and other parts. I look at it this way: you would never give your child an adult dose of Tylenol (or any other drug) because their bodies can’t handle it in those amounts. They would become sick whereas we adults would be perfectly fine.

    2. Yes, quartz is naturally occurring and everywhere… the problem with it is when it is crushed and the dust gets in your lungs. I find beach sand to be much less dusty, and it is usually wet.

      1. Complelty agree about the Tylenol or any thing like that. I just want people to realize, just because you don’t get the regular sand or use an alternatize you are still getting exposed to it. It’s everywhere.
        My biggest problem with a lot of these new studies coming out about this and that being toxic is yes, they are toxic in extreme doses (nothing any normal human would be exposed to in their life). I remember growing up there was a big thing about arsenic in apple juice and apple cider (and I am sure many of you heard about it recently from Dr. Oz). Yes there is arsenic in apple juice and apples cider, and it is in a lot of other things that come from the earth (our drinking water, grains, fruit, etc). It’s a compound in the earth. The problem is what kind of arsenic (organic or inorganic) and how much. I know with the apple cider, they said a child would have to drink a gallon of cider a day for there entire life to even come close to the amount of exposure needed to cause any harm and an adult would have to drink a couple of gallons. I don’t know about you but I don’t think I drink that in a year.

  10. I hope my sister is reading this because I’m about to hit her landscaper boyfriend up for some recs! Thanks for taking on this subject for me, Dena!

    1. Thanks Kris-Ann! i actually called them since they are about 10 minutes from me. They sell the river sand in bulk, but others should be forewarned that they also sell bags of play sand for $10 that has no warning or labels on them. It says “Lighthouse Natural Play Sand” but when I looked up the company I was forwarded to a site for “US SIlica.” NOT what I wanted!

      1. Most likely the reson they don’t have the warning is because that warning only has be placed on things intended to be sold in CA. CA is the only state the requires anything that has shown the possibility to cause cancer to be labled. Many products out there can cause cancer (I was surprised to find that most crib mattresses and even regular mattresses contain products that have been shown to cause cancer, but if you bought it in CT is most likely is not labeled) but CA is the only state that requires warnings. I have actually seen products in CA that we have here that are labeled there but not here. Manufactors make different packages for different parts of the country so they don’t have to disclouse this.

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