The weather is warmer, and children are spending more time playing outside and in parks. Just like many other products designed for children we have discovered, there are potential health hazards on the playground. Play sand contains carcinogenic dust, and wooden play structures made with pressure treated lumber contain arsenic compounds.
Children love to play in the sand, but have you ever bought a bag of play sand? If you live in California, the bag of play sand is labeled with a Proposition 65 warning label telling you that it contains “chemicals known to cause cancer in the state of California.” Play sand contains crystalline silica, which has been identified as a human carcinogen; however, there have been no reported cases of children developing cancer from play sand. In addition, play sand contains traces of the mineral tremolite, a form of the human carcinogen asbestos. Philip Landrigan, M.D., director of the Center for Children’s Health and the Environment at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, as quoted in the Green Guide, states malignant mesothelioma—a lung cancer caused almost exclusively by asbestos—is extremely sensitive to limited exposure. “Even very small doses of asbestos exposure,” Landrigan says, “can increase the risk of malignant mesothelioma for four or five or six decades.” As expected, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) fails to see a problem with play sand.
The good news is that a safe sand alternative exists. According to the Safe Sand Company, “Safe Sand is a fine white playsand, but unlike crushed quartz, it is a feldspathic sand. Our finely gradated and clean play sand is ideal for use in children’s sand boxes. Our beautiful white sand is the perfect texture for creating sand castles and sand sculptures.” We filled our sandbox with local sand from the river. Since this natural sand is not manufactured play sand, I assume (perhaps foolishly) that it is safe.
Another risk found in backyard and playgrounds comes from wooden structures built with pressure treated lumber. This lumber often has a greenish tinge to it from the chemicals injected into it to preserve the wood. This wood is treated with chromated copper arsenate (CCA) to prevent rot from insects and microbial agents. This is one area in which the government has acted to protect our children. The EPA has worked with manufacturers since 2003 to eliminate CCA from children’s play structures. Unfortunately, many older playgrounds still exist and the CPSC has refused to ban CCA. Commissioner Mary Sheila Gall said, “EPA’s cancellation of the registration of CCA as a pesticide will have the effect of prospectively banning the use of CCA-treated wood, and most major manufacturers of playground sets have already ceased using CCA-treated wood. I urge the staff to continue its work to identify stains and sealants that will reduce exposure to arsenic from existing CCA wood structures.” The CPSC staff scientists found that some children may face an increased risk of developing lung or bladder cancer over from playground equipment made from CCA pressure-treated wood. Children come in contact with arsenic residue from the hand to the mouth after playing on CCA pressure-treated wood playground equipment. The Environmental Working Group led the way in petitioning the CPSC. Their report titled Poisoned Playgrounds found that, “We know that arsenic in drinking water is dangerous for children, but what we found was that the arsenic in lumber is an even greater risk,” said EWG Analyst Renee Sharp, principal author of the report. “In less than two weeks, an average five-year-old playing on an arsenic-treated playset would exceed the lifetime cancer risk considered acceptable under federal pesticide law.”
EWG makes the following recommendations for protecting children from pressure treated lumber:
*Seal arsenic-treated wood structures every year with polyurethane or other hard lacquer
*Don’t let children eat at arsenic-treated picnic tables, or at least cover the table with a coated tablecloth
*Make sure children wash their hands after playing on arsenic-treated surfaces, particularly before eating.
Remember, pressure treated lumber may exists in many places outside your home. Be cautious around decks, fences, railings, etc. Newer wooden play structures are preserved with “ammoniacal copper quaternary, is considered less toxic to children than arsenic compounds, but its effect on the environment is still unknown. The most responsible choice remains naturally rot-resistant woods like cedar or redwood. Look for Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)-certified wood, or choose play sets made from recycled plastics”, as suggested by the Green Guide. My personal opinion is to look for cedar products, as I am concerned with overharvesting in the redwood forests. If you are shopping for a backyard play structure, The Green Guide also offers product comparisons of alternative playground equipment.
Thanks so much for posting this information and raising awareness! The Environmental Working Group has estimated that one in five hundred children will develop cancer over the course of their lifetimes due to time spent playing on cca-treated wood structures. While this is a haunting statistic, following guidelines they mention can alleviate most of the risk, especially the application of a water based polyurethane. Since these structures are made to be weather resistant, we can expect to find them in backyards for many years to come.
Lynne Eldridge M.D.
Author, “Avoiding Cancer One Day At A Time: Practical Advice for Preventing Cancer”
Jennifer Lance says
Thank you Dr. Eldridge for your comment. Those statistics are scary. I think that we will especially find these play structures at playgrounds for a long time, as there was initially a large investment to install them. Parents should ask park services when the last application of polyurethane was applied.
On our deck, we have covered all the pressure treated boards with facia boards.
Ami Scott says
This is interesting. I knew about the wood, but it never entered my head about the sand. I was just getting ready to buy some for the kids, so this was welcome info.
This is really interesting (but scary) information.
We are in NZ and I would think most people assume that the sand they buy from their local timber yard is natural & therefore safe. I am following up with our local building megastore to find out where it comes from (I believe it is river sand).
Can you pse clarify one point…would even river sand contain the crystalline silica and mineral tremolite you mention?
Thanks…I would like to follw up and put a warning on my organic Baby Blog for NZ readers. Rgds, Lianne http://www.organicbaby.co.nz
Jennifer Lance says
Ecomum, I do not know the answers to your questions. If you visit the Safe Sand Company link in the post, they may be able to help you.
This is from Safe Sand:
Could the sand at my hardware store be dangerous?
According to OSHA, the EPA and the state of California . YES. That is because most of the playsand found in today’s stores is not natural sand, but actually derived from quarried quartz rocks. The dust from such sand is regulated by OSHA and known to cause fatal lung conditions. To learn more about the risks from regular exposure to crystalline silica, get informed on our information page. You can also read more from the United States Environmental Protection Agency: http://www.epa.gov. What is Safe Sand and how do I know it is safe?
Safe Sand is a fine white playsand, but unlike crushed quartz, it is a feldspathic sand. Our finely gradated and clean play sand is ideal for use in children’s sand boxes. Our beautiful white sand is the perfect texture for creating sand castles and sand sculptures. It is (AP) approved safe by the ACMI, ASTM (USA), Corporate and Consumer Affairs (Canada), and the EN-71 (Europe). Our sand is regularly tested at Duke University and the detailed report is found at the bottom of our product description page: http://store.yahoo.com/safesand/ornatplaysan.html.
I think there is a way to test the sand too, but I am not sure where I read this.
My background is geology…so to shed somelight on your questions…
All those brown sands you see in general are crystalline silica…it is chemically known as Silicon Dioxide. (SiO2), but also more commonly also known as quartz!!!
It actually changes into two other forms when heated to very high temperatures, which are more of a cancer concern than their quartz counterpart because it becomes more fibrous. (Tridymite and Cristobalite)
You won’t find these on beaches or in sand boxes…so you have no worries.
All that brown sand you lay on at the beach and put in your sand boxes is the same crystalline quartz…and unless you are sucking it in through a straw…I would be more worried about putting on a hat and some sun screen and keeping you children from taking up smoking.
Enjoy the beach and the sand castles…this topic is a sand dune made from a sand grain so to speak…
Felipe Meirelles says
Really Nice arthicle !, I discovered a company in California that produce really high quality playground recycled rubber,
I would like all of you to see it !!!
OPB did a program this month on danger to kids from recycled tire Playgrounds – which absorb and retain heat…and get VERY HOT in the sun, which leaves city kids to play for hours on an over 110 degree surface.
After the study, NYC Parks quickly stopped installing the materials for sunny spaces.
Gary Edwards says
I think the author as a business interest in Safe Sand.I would think again about spending $60 for a few pounds of “safe” sand.
Safe Sand is feldspathic sand, a manufactured byproduct of mica mining. It costs $20-$100 a TON from the quarry. The rest is marketing. Safesand sells it for $60/50 pounds. Their stuff comes from Sandtastik.
Sandtastik white sand sells for $8-22/per 25 pounds. Shipping is the killer there if you don’t have a supplier near you.
There is also Jurassic Sand which appears to be a red quartz sand but is approved for use with asthmatic children because it is dustless and is also “round grains” so it won’t scratch floors when tracked indoors. It seems to price comparably to the feldspathic sand.
Aquarium owners often use aragonite sand because it’s quite inert (won’t change Ph) and clean (no dust). Some lucky folks live near Home Depots which carry this as “Tropical Play Sand” whereas others simply have a generic Play Sand which is NOT aragonite. Manufacturer is same as CaribSea which makes the high end stuff for fish. If avail, the Home Depot aragonite seems the most cost-effective option.
All that to say I still haven’t figured out the “best” sand for my baby’s sandbox, but I am trying!
Mark Hillyard says
I always look to see what you “Greens” are selling. It appears to me that you always have a lead in to selling some “Green” stuff. Why not be honest and write your article with your facts without your damned, stupid come on for “Green”?
Tim R says
Playboxsand.com 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. A lot of playsand that can be purchased at the major hardware stores can still be dangerous and if you look closely at the bag it will have a warning label on it indicating that it contains silica.