Lines in the Sand

A few weeks back, in preparation for summer’s humid dog days and toddler boredom, I made the wise decision to rejuvenate the weedy, and neglected play structure lumbering in a state of paralysis in my backyard. This is/was a multitiered process that required purchasing a few hundred pounds of sand for the sand box. Simple enough, however my wife (in her infinite Web searching and wisdom), informed me that the benign play sand–the stuff that we have all been playing with for years–is often loaded with a substance called crystalline silica, which has been deemed a known carcinogen. Bummer!

According to OSHA, overexposure to Crystalline Silica (got to admit that the name alone makes it sound exquisite and nearly irresistible to children) leads to Silicosis, a disabling lung disease that is often fatal. Point taken. However, there are alternatives to providing your child with a cubic yard of granular danger. A few select manufacturers, like Safe Sand, offer silica-free sand, that seem relatively harmless. But the price point for this premium sand is unreasonably high, and this is before you calculate the shipping costs for a few hundred pounds of sand. The end result would be a sandbox that could more affordably be filled with pine nuts than sand.

This dilemma moved me to try to find a silica-free alternative locally, whether it be sand, mulch, or something equally as malleable as sand. Long story short, I was unable to find anything that was conclusively silica-free and/or assuredly safe. I wound up purchasing 300 pounds of questionable sand (one sales associate said it was silica-free, the other said it wasn’t) that will probably sit in my garage unused. Problem unsolved!

The aforementioned quandary reminded me of a recent New York Times article that sited a fairly new phenomenon called “green noise.” This is essentially a glut of well-intended information aimed at environmentally aware consumers, that instead of helping, just leads to confusion, overwhelm, and consumer stasis or inaction. In some respects, I am a victim (by my own design) of the low, assaultive, static buzz of “green noise.” My intentions to make a wise, and healthy choice for my child has lead to frustration, befuddlement, and the purchase of something I was trying to avoid from the beginning.

It is my sincere hope that nothing in this blog contributes to this phenomenon or causes undue confusion. But I have to ask…is anyone else feeling the noise?

Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, N.Y. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.


Tim R.
Tim R.6 years ago sells PURE CRUSHED MARBLE which is ™.99 silica free, it is sand or gravel made from pure white marble. It is priced very reasonable (retails for $7-8 for a 50lb bag)
Shipping as with everything else is the bummer but if your address is close enough to southern CA you can purchase from one of their retailers or you can purchase directly from and have it shipped. They also deliver in bulk for large sandboxes and school and park playgrounds.

Claudia Micher
Claudia Micher8 years ago

I finally posted the comment on my blog, but trackback at the end of this page does not show it, don't know why.
Blog entry is in spanish, but you can read the Google translation to english here...
As always, it's a pleasure to read your work, Eric!

Claudia Micher
Claudia Micher8 years ago

Does anyone have information about consuming Crystalline Silica as a food aditive? I'm doing a dangerous candy review for my blog and found this as an ingredient of some powdered products...

Barb H.
Barb H9 years ago

We had a "covered" sand box homemade for the boys when they were small. Yes, they loved it. Yes, they got dirty, and yes we had a lot of giggles watching them push their Tonka trucks through it to make their hills.My older boy grew into a man who never has used smoking, calls it "filthy" but my younger son grew up to smoke like a chimney and doesn't worry about. So whatever you do, they end up making their own choices eventually. Who knew? I thought I could protect them from everything back then. As a Granny now, I see that I was unrealistic. I'm glad they've survived their decisions.

Pete Bradley
Pete Bradley9 years ago

I hear the cryslalised silica is a problem if inhaled, microscopic dust particles, just like clay based cat litter!
In most cases parents usually buy sterilised sand (done by heating the sand to a specific temperature), and keeping it moist prevents the dust from becoming airborne.

Patti C.
MK L9 years ago

So sand is not only dirty, its unsafe too! I would forego the whole thing, but my son loves to play in the sand box at the playground and it would be nice if we could also have a safer sandbox at home. I heard that if you keep sand wet its less dangerous because the dust doesn't get into you lungs. But even that seemed a little iffy. If anybody hears of a more reasonably priced sand than ordering Safe Sand online, please post the info!