Guide to Safe Sand

Safe Sand Company uses its marketing resources to raise awareness and inform the public of the hazards of silica dust. The dangers of silica dust have long been established, resulting in steps like the California Proposition 65 warning labels attached to bags of sand. While warning labels are a good start, they are far from adequate for protecting the public, particularly where children and athletes are concerned.

Guide to Safe Sand: What's In Your Sandbox?

Safe Sand Is Natural Sand

Ever noticed the filmy residue left by the sand used in sand boxes, parks and beach volleyball courts? Why is it that after brushing off the sand at the beach there is no dusty residue, just perhaps traces of salt?

This is because the sand in many children’s sand boxes, playgrounds, parks and beach volleyball courts is not natural sand. It is a commercial byproduct of mining and other uses of quartz. The filmy substance that you have noticed is finely powdered quartz, known as silica dust, which is a dangerous toxin when inhaled.

It has long been known that prolonged exposure to silica dust can lead to various debilitating and incurable lung diseases, including cancer. Governmental regulations for protecting workers who work with commercial sand in various industries were established long ago.

In California, Proposition 65 requires that quarried sand carry a warning label about the risks of silicosis and cancer. This is the sand sold by large retailers and routinely used for sandboxes, landscaping, sports and recreational purposes. But the small-print warning label is inconspicuous and not noticed by most consumers, and most people do not even see the packaging that contained the sand.

There is no need for children to give up their sand play. Beach volleyball players and coaches need not worry about breathing in toxic dust. Playgrounds and parks do not need to resort to artificial sand. There are safe alternatives, but first the public must be informed.

Health Hazards of Silica Dust

“If it’s silica it’s not just dust.”

Silica, also called quartz, is a common mineral. It is found in abundance in nature and has many uses in various industries. The dust created by cutting, grinding or drilling through quartz, however, is known to be a health hazard when inhaled. When this dust is inhaled, small particles of silica lodge themselves permanently in the lungs and cause irreversible and sometimes fatal illness. Silicosis and lung cancer have long been linked to the inhalation of silica dust.

The commercial “sand” used in construction, landscaping, and even some children’s sand boxes is the byproduct of mining or other uses of quartz. As such, it is an inexpensive product and attractive to retailers, industries, and employers. Government guidelines and regulations protecting workers who are exposed to silica dust were established long ago.

Robert Reich, then Secretary of Labor, in a document titled “Guide to Working Safety with Silica: It it’s silica it’s not just dust,” writes:

Every year, more than 250 workers in the United States die with silicosis, an incurable, progressive lung disease caused by overexposure to dust containing silica. Hundreds more become disabled by this disease. Every one of these cases is an unnecessary tragedy, because silicosis is absolutely preventable. If you work, or you are an employer, in one of the dozens of industries where dust containing silica is present, you need to know how to prevent this disease.

The Guide produced cooperatively by Department of Labor and the Department of Health and Human Services explains how workers must be protected from exposure to silica dust. Reich continues:

Sixty years ago, Labor Secretary Frances Perkins launched a nationwide effort to prevent silicosis. Great strides were made during this time period; however, there is still work to be done.

Government Regulations

Many governmental agencies have been active in the effort Reich describes. Here are brief references to important documents produced by these agencies explaining the health hazards of silica dust:

NIOSH (The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health), Center for Disease Control

Occupational exposures to respirable crystalline silica are associated with the development of silicosis, lung cancer, pulmonary tuberculosis, and airways diseases. These exposures may also be related to the development of autoimmune disorders, chronic renal disease, and other adverse health effects.”

NIOSH states that at least “1.7 million U.S. workers are exposed to respirable crystalline silica in a variety of industries and occupations, including construction, sandblasting, and mining.” This number, however, does not reflect the numbers of children and adults working with them, as well as workers in landscaping and the parks. While it is argued that the exposure of these latter groups is less than industrial workers, as California Proposition 65 acknowledges, exposure to any amount of silica dust poses a health hazard.

OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration), Department of Labor

Inhalation of respirable crystalline silica particles has long been known to cause silicosis, a disabling, non-reversible and sometimes fatal disease. Respirable crystalline silica also causes lung cancer. In addition, exposure to respirable crystalline silica has been associated with other respiratory disease as well as kidney and immune system diseases.

NIH (National Institute of Health)

Silica is primarily composed of quartz dust and has been classified since 2000 as a known human carcinogen by the U.S. government. Silicosis may lead to impairment of lung function resulting from fibrosis of the lungs. This may in turn lead to an increased susceptibility to the development of tuberculosis.

EPA (Environmental Protection Agency)

Crystalline silica is widely used in industry and has long been recognized as a major occupational hazard, causing disability and deaths among workers in several industries. This is a health risk assessment covering the causes and studies of crystalline silica exposure.

California Proposition 65

Crystalline silica (airborne particles of respirable size) has been listed under Proposition 65 as a chemical known to the State to cause cancer since October 1, 1988. In California companies are required by law to label products that contain carcinogens, including silica. The sand sold by large retailers in California display this warning label.

Legal Hazards of Silica Dust

Is Silica the Next Asbestos?

In a recent article Wall Street Journal suggested that the silica litigation resurgence is so great that it could rival the volume and character of asbestos litigation.

There is great concern in the legal community over the surge in lawsuits brought against employers and industries that expose workers to silica dust. The question in these lawsuits is whether employers have taken necessary precaution against overexposure to silica dust. There is no question that silica dust is a serious health hazard and that workers must be adequately protected against it.

Regulation through Litigation

We are all more or less familiar with the cases of asbestos and tobacco. There was a time when asbestos was widely used in construction and, in fact, its use was vigorously encouraged. There was also the time when cigarettes were glamorized and aggressively marketed to young people. What put an end to these practices were the lawsuits brought against asbestos and tobacco companies. That is, government was forced to regulate these products by the threat of litigation. For a discussion of regulations of tobacco, asbestos and silica dust see Regulation by Litigation (Yale University Press, 2009) and Regulation through Litigation (Brookings Institution Press, 2002).

The same situation now faces products containing silica dust. What is preventing strict government regulation now is the question of how much silica dust is considered harmless. The argument presumably is that industrial workers who are exposed to massive amounts of silica dust are at danger but kids playing in silica sand are safe. But whether or not safe levels of exposure to carcinogens can be established is almost a moot point. Why expose children or the public at large to any level of carcinogens?

History of Silica Litigation

The article titled “Is Silica the Next Asbestos?” (Pepperdine Law Review, 2005) reviews and analyzes the history of silica litigation:

Hawk’s Nest Tunnel/Gauley Bridge

During the Depression era, it was difficult to find work. With the nation’s economy in shambles, numerous Americans lost their jobs. Then, just as so many began to lose hope, the Union Carbide Corporation decided to drill a tunnel through Hawk’s Nest Mountain in West Virginia, employing over 1,500 men to complete the project. Men were overjoyed at the opportunity to work so that they could feed their starving families. As the men began to drill, many began to experience severe shortness of breath. They acknowledged that the work environment was dusty, but their coughing and difficulty breathing seemed quite extreme. As the project continued, more and more workers began to have trouble breathing, so much so that some stopped breathing altogether. Men were dying as they worked and they had no idea why.

The Union Carbide officials knew exactly why these men were dying. Hawk’s Nest Mountain was composed almost entirely of silica… The most appalling part of the Hawk’s Nest tragedy was that Union Carbide officials knew of the great dangers that silica dust posed, yet did nothing to stop workers from being exposed to the dust. The men were not given any protective materials to prevent inhalation.

The American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA) provides further historical background:

In the early to mid-1930s, approximately 1,500 workers (1/4 of the work force) were reported to have died of silica dust exposure (silicosis) from working on the tunnel project in Gauley Bridge, West Virginia.

In early 1936, the Committee on Labor of the House of Representatives authorized the Department of Labor to conduct a board to inquire into the Gauley Bride incident.

National Silicosis Conference of 1936

After the Hawk’s Nest/Gauley Bridge incident, Labor Secretary Francis Perkins and the Department of Labor sponsored the National Silicosis Conference, bringing together, government, labor and industry to help resolve the silicosis crisis in United States.

In Texas and beyond

AIHA continues:

Subsequent to the National Silicosis Conference, silica litigation remained fairly dormant until the early to mid 1980s when the litigation reappeared in Texas. From the mid 19980s to mid to late 1990s silica litigation remained fairly stable in the state.

Since 2002, we have seen an explosion of litigation with over 30,000 claimants filing lawsuits throughout the nation.

Warning Labels and the Myth of the “Sophisticated User”

Warning labels on hazardous products aim to turn consumers into what in legalize is called “sophisticated users.” The terms “sophisticated user” or “learned intermediary” are legal defenses used to protect the manufacturers of toxic products. The rationale behind the defense of the manufacturer is that the consumer “should have known better.” But the end user of the sand that is bought and poured in the sandbox or playground by others may never even have had the chance to see the bag containing the sand or the warning label on it.

Furthermore, forewarning of danger is not informing consumers. It is merely a shift of responsibility from manufacturer to user. At Safe Sand Company we believe that the true “sophisticated user” is not one who is merely warned by a label. A truly sophisticated user is a user who is informed of hazards of, as well as alternatives to, questionable products.

In Short…

While working conditions for industrial workers have improved since the 1930s, the fight to improve worker safety continues. As for the public at large, however, many questions remain:

  • How safe are children and adults exposed to silica dust in sandboxes, beach volleyball courts and public spaces?
  • Should children, athletes and the public be required to wear “protective materials to prevent inhalation”?
  • Were we asked to wear protective gear against tobacco smoke or was the use of tobacco in much of public space, and certainly around children and athletes, banned?
  • Are we to consider silica dust less harmful than second hand tobacco smoke?
  • And finally: Is it wise to wait for government to “regulate” our children’s sandboxes, our public parks and our sports facilities?

It took more than six decades for regulations against silica dust to be established in the industrial work place. Do we want to wait that long in the playgrounds, parks and beach volleyball courts?

Natural Alternatives

We don’t have to wait for governmental regulation to avoid exposure to silica dust. We certainly don’t need to deprive children, or adults for that matter, of the pleasure of playing in sand.

Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS)

The MSDS is a detailed information bulletin prepared by the manufacturer or distributor of a product that describes the physical and chemical properties of that product. It lists hazardous ingredients and contains information on potential health and environmental hazards. The MSDS is an important aid in the selection of safe products.

Be sure to ask to review this document if you order “natural” sand from any company.

Safe Sand Company Products

We provide two grades of natural sand for indoor and outdoor use. Our sand is not bleached or dyed and does not contain asbestos, lead or crystalline silica dust.

White Sandbox Sand

This is a fine white, naturally formed sand that molds well for building sand castles and other structures. It is very low-dust and ideal for both indoor and outdoor and prolonged use.

Beach Sand

This natural multi-colored sand is grainier than our white sand and is responsibly harvested directly from California beaches. It is ideal for outdoor activities, beach volleyball courts, landscaping and surfacing. Although this sand is crystalline silica, because it is naturally formed by the ocean it is very low in dust.

Alternatives to Sand for Sandboxes

Another alternative to natural beach sand is riverbed sand. This sand is quite coarse but less costly and ideal for many types of use. In addition to sand, sandboxes can be filled with different natural material for children to play with. Here are some ideas:

  • Pea gravel
  • Crushed walnut shells (from pet stores)
  • Rice
  • Dried beans and legumes
  • Cornmeal
  • Flaxseed (from horse and feed stores)
  • Fish tank rocks (from pet stores)
  • Mini corncobs (from pet stores)