Sand & Sandboxes

Archived Q&A and Reviews


Play Sand in Berkeley?

April 2007

We just built a sand box but are having a terrible time trying to find a place that carries play sand. I have called several nurseries (Dwight Wy. Nursery, Berkeley Hort., Cactus Jungle) and large garden center places (Target, OSH) and no one has it. Any suggestions? I'm willing to travel as long as I know I'm headed to a place that actually has some in stock. Thanks for the help, my little eager diggers thank you too. Best, Gia

American Soil and Acapulco Rock & Soil (more customer friendly I feel) are landscape supply companies that carry sand. They are both in Richmond, along I80/El Cerrito. You can rent a pickup and have them load the truck for you, or bring sand bags (buy them at ACE Hardware in El Cerrito) to bag the sand. They sometimes have bagged sand on hand already. The sand they have is for construction, but I've used it for our kids' sandbox and it works fine. Toys R Us sells sandbox sand by the bag, but it's expensive. It's the gravelly kind that doesn't bind when wet. I think kids prefer real sand they can make sandcastles out of. Once you have a sandbox, you'll have cats. It's worth getting a cover to not have to remove and replace the sand, once you find the cat's used the sandbox. You can order custom sandbox tarps from a company in Redding, if you need: Damian

We used American Soil Products 292-3000 to get coarse river sand for a kid's sandbox. (Fine sand was a mistake, it packed too hard.) It's moved from Berkeley to Richmond since then. peg

Both Home Depot and Orchard Hardware carry play sand. sarah

Safe silica free sand

June 2006

Does anyone know where to purchase safe silica-free sand that is affordable? I have been looking online and the prices are high. Also, is the play sand, sold in most retail stores, safe,even though it comes with a warning label on the bag? Thanks

Silica in sand is just quartz, it isn't toxic. I had to look up the warnings because I had never heard of such a thing, and it turns out the danger applies specifically to people who inhale a lot of fine silica dust. For instance, those who work as sand blasters should wear a mask, because they can develop silicosis or cancer.

The reason they have a higher risk of cancer is due to the irritation caused by small particles in their lungs...constant irritation means the cells have to divide more often to replace the ones that are lost...more dividing cells means a slightly higher risk of getting stuck with a mutation leading to a tumor. Exposure of the lungs to ANY small particle, including silica or another inert particle, would lead to the same risk. Silica free sand won't reduce that risk, and unless your kids are planning on grinding it up to a fine powder and inhaling large amounts of it, they'll be fine.

So yes, normal sand is safe. Silica is safe, and it's everywhere in nature, you can't avoid it.
toxicology mom

Chemicals in sand - is it safe?

March 2005

I'm trying to find silica-free sand for my daughter's sandbox. The play-grade sand I bought at Toys R Us has a carcinogenic warning on the label! I've contacted American soil and they don't have anything. Does anyone know where to find non- carcinogenic sand for a children's sandbox? thanks

Silica is not inherently carcinogenic. Small particles are. Any inhalable materials-- smoke, silica, asbestos, even hay-- can lead to lung cancer if inhaled regularlly over many years. Sand consists of large particles of silicates and aluminosilicates (0.05-2 millimeters). Inhalable particles are in the 0.0001 millimeter size range. The percent of inhalable particles, silica or other, present in ANY bag of sand is not likely to be large enough for concern. Scientist Mommy

You might find info (or phone numbers of folks who have the info you need) at this site: I found it with a google search. Or you could call some of the city parks departments in the area and see if they know of a local source (you might get some interesting, evasive and scary replies 'though). - a mom

May 2003

Does anyone know how to tell if sandbox sand is safe? I know some kinds contain harmful materials which I'd like to steer clear of. This is sand at school playground, not newly purchased, so I don't know where it came from or who bought it. I'm only working with appearance. Thanks, want safe, healthy kids

There is no asbestos in sand(or shouldn't be!). Rather, sand is made of mostly silica, a naturally occuring element (like asbestos) which in large doses can cause lung problems (like asbestos) such as silicosis. This primarily happens in an occupational setting however (mining, construction) where exposure to silica can be of a long duration (eight hours a day, five days a week for years) and quite high.

The sand in playground sand is most likely not fine enough to enter into the innermost reaches of the airway where it could do its damage. There is a warning on the bag because silica is considered carcinogenic, and law dictates the warning I presume. But from my experience (I am an occupational health/safety professional who works for a park system), I have never come across any evidence linking playground sand to increased health risks in children. Asbestos, lead and arsenic, yes, silica in playground sand, no, for the reasons I listed above. Of course, you never know. But given the other risks possibly lurking at playgrounds (such as lead and arsenic), I'd focus on those and not worry about the sand. Hilary

May 2002

We've looked at bags of sand, labeled ''play sand'' at toys-r-us and home depot. Both have notices that they contain chemicals which may cause cancer. Also, I've heard that you have to be sure to get sand that doesn't have dust, which can cause silicosis. It seems these are two separate safety issues. Thanks for advice. I'm sure someone has figured this out already. Anne

Hi-- I did a lot of research on this when we bought sand. I am a librarian at the UCB Public Health Library and have access to a lot of the original documentation of the research behind these prop. 65 warnings. Basically, my conclusion is that the ingredient in question (silica) is really only a problem for those in daily, high dose contact with it, i.e. sandblasters, quarry workers, etc. I think the amount of silica dust a child will inhale during the small amount of time s/he spends playing in sand is not a concern. All the studies on this were based on people with repeated long- term occupational exposure. On the other issue--dust--we got some very nice sand from Orchard Supply (ashby nr san pablo) in 50 pound bags (they will put in your car). It's very cheap, and is nice stuff-- similar to the sand at 1000 oaks park in berkeley (relatively coarse with not much dust). I would not recommend any sand at American Soil--all theirs seemed very dusty to me. Michael

Alternative to sand for sandbox

Jan 2005

Can anyone recommend a safe, less messy, alternative to sand for a sandbox? My kids love to scoop up whatever and put it in their trucks and I would love to get them a real sandbox to play with but don't feel like having to give them a bath EVERY time they play outside. When we moved to this house there was pile of small gravel that they went crazy with but is that safe or are there possible additives (like some kinds of sand) that could be harmful to children? It was less ''sticky'' than sand so it didn't get all over them too badly. Thanks, CB

At the Bay Area Discovery Museum they have gravel pits instead of sand and the kids love it. I am probably going to do the same at our house. Ask about any additives when you buy it, but besides little, little kids trying to eat the rocks, it should be safe. Liz B.

I don't know if it's practical on the scale of a climb-in sandbox, but the daycare we go to has a big tub full of dry black beans that are awesome for scooping and pouring - you can't build bean castles, but the beans feel good and are easy to clean up and safe for the kids. JP

Where can I find the course, smooth sandbox sand?

We are looking for sandbox sand. We like the slightly bigger, rounder, smoother, tan granules of sand at the Thousand Oaks Tot Lot in North Berkeley. The bag of Play Sand we bought at Home Depot was dusty, too-fine and gray. If anyone knows of the name, grade and possible places of purchase of sand similar to that in nice playgrounds, please let us know. Thanks. Alicia

Try American Soil Products in Berkeley. I think that they carry sand with the larger grain size suitable for a sandbox.

Call American Soil Products in Berkeley 883-7200. They have several grades of sand. You could go look at it and feel it before buying it. They also would probably be able to tell you on the phone exactly what you want. They can deliver in bulk or sell it in bags. June

We bought our sandbox sand at American Soil Products in Berkeley. They have many kinds and you can either pick it up yourself or pay a reasonable delivery charge and they will deliver it to you. Their phone number is 510-883-7200, and they are located at 3rd and Bancroft.

Ace Hardware has play sand that I think fits your description. We bought sand at the big store at the end of Bancroft (forget the name) and had to return it because it was too dusty. Inbal

Home Depot sells sand specifically identified as Sandbox Sand for under $3.00 a bag.

Orchard Supply Hardware on Ashby at San Pablo has good coarse grain sand. I think they call it Play Sand -- they have a display sample so it will be clear which is the right one. They are about $4 a bag. Kim

Looking for fine play sand

Jan 2005

I am looking for fine play sand for my daughters sand box. Everywhere I go I can only find the grainy kind of play sand. It's hard to bake little cakes in the sand box since the sand is not fine enough. If I add water to it it's a little better but not as nice as the fine play sand. My daughter's preschool has this sand I am talking about but unfortunatly they can't remember where they bought it. Most play grounds have the grainy sand I don't like but it's just not as much fun to play with. This sand always seems to be a little damp which makes for great sand cakes. Anybody know where to get it ?

American Soil Products in Richmond Annex- San Joaquin Ave. off Central Ave. Can't remember a specific name for it, but they've got it. Osh hardware might, too. Chris

Back in 2001 or 2002 we got great fine, sterile sand in 50 lb. bags from Home Depot. Lisa

Diamond-K in Lafayette sells fine sand for sandboxes.

Fine sand usually comes packaged as #30 grit size silica sand. You can get 100 lb bags for under $10 of this from masonry stores (such as Maccon Masonry on Bayshore in San Francisco). Home Depot sells a product called Medium Construction Sand - also in 100 lb bags which I've found to be #30 grit size as well. The downside to sand this fine is that it is easier to get into little eyes. Happy cake making! Fred

I found fine play sand at a Gardening Supply store called Diamond K in Lafayette. It is located on MT Diablo Blvd./West side of Lafayette just past the Trader Joe's. I think it cost about $7 for a sack of sand. kay

Where can I get clean sand for a sandbox?

does anyone know where to get clean sand for sand box? thanks Betty

OSH on Ashby near San Pablo. They sell clean play sand. Just pick up the slip, go to the register, pay and they will load the bags into your car in the pickup section. Toyr's R Us used to have sand too. I don't know if they do anymore. Veronica

From: Lara

Last summer I got some coarse play sand at Orchard Supply for $3/bag. I know Home Depot sells play sand too.

Sand/water table vs. sand box

Nov 2003

Hi, I need help picking a product. We got a sandbox this summer (tuggy) and filled it with water for wading. We had planned on filling it with sand later, but are now waivering. Should we get a sand/water table for sand instead? We have several factors to consider:
1. We already purchased sea sand which is very fine and may stick to clothing.
2. Kids' ages are 4yrs and 8mo. Would both be able to enjoy the table vs. box? The 8mo. can stand and almost walk.
3. There are feral cats causing brown patches on our grass. The 4yr old will surely leave the box uncovered when I am not looking. Are cats less likely to use the open table as a litter box? (The sea sand is much pricier than reg. play sand to replace.) Thanks.

We have the Little Tykes sand/water table. We love it, but decided to fill the whole thing with water. My daughter has more fun sitting in the sand and digging (which you can't do in a table-top sand box), and when we used the sand and water sections as they were intended, she ended up mostly making mud: pouring water into the sand side and pouring sand into the water side. Because she gets so much sand time at parks, we just filled the whole table with water and she seemed to enjoy it just as much. Liz O.

We first bought my daughter a small turtle sandbox and found it wasn't much fun for her. It wasn't really big enough for her to sit in and play the way she wanted. So we bought the Little Tikes sand and water table and she likes it much better. We have a very small back patio, but the sand/water table has made it a fun space for my daughter. The only problem with it is that it is very difficult to open and close, which really drives me crazy. We also end up with sand all over the ground around the table and lots of sand in the water, making it sort of a mess to close. This doesn't bother me a bit-- it's on a patio so we can just sweep up the sand, but I suppose it might be frustrating if it was on the grass. Caroline

Where can I buy a wooden sandbox?

Does anyone know where I can buy a WOODEN sandbox to put in our garden? If not, does anyone have fairly simple instructions on how to make one? We'll fake it if need be, but it would help to follow someone else's guidelines. Judith

re: the wooden sandbox--four boards sanded for splinters & put together with metal corner braces would make an easy sandbox, simply placed over soil. However, be sure you plan on a top or a good heavy tarp if there are cats in your area, or your sandbox will become a litter box that smells & harbors disease. Also if you want a bottom put some small holes in it in case you leave the tarp off & it rains, unless you want a sand puddle. ' The plastic ones with tops are unecological but they are cheap & practical. (Punch a hole in the bottom with a shovel when the rain gets in.) Mary Ann

If you decide to build a sandbox, Urban Ore in Berkeley (Gilman & 6th) has inexpensive building materials and lots of other treasures. Diana

Railroad ties for sandbox border?

Oct 2003

We are considering using railroad ties as a border for our children's sandbox, but someone recently mentioned that due to the chemicals that are in the ties they can be very dangerous if a child gets a splinter from them. I remember playing near and on railroad ties as a kid, but has anyone heard of anything like this or have experience otherwise? trying to be safe

While I am uninformed of the dangers of chemicals in railroad ties, I can tell you the the splinters can be pretty awful. When we were kids, my sister got a splinter - more like a thorn - in her foot from one of those things. It was an evening seared into my memory, with all the screaming and howling involved in getting it out. My grandparents came over (to bring big tweezers? to help hold her still? I don't know why...) and they finally got the thing out. In my mind, the thorn was half a foot long if it was an inch, but that is probably distorted... But it was big and the extraction was unpleasant. Drama Queen's Sister

Don't use railroad ties! A friend of mine said he had some in his garden. When they started to rot, he wanted to get rid of them. He had to pay thousands of dollars to do this. You can't just take them to the dump. They must be disposed of in an environmentally safe way. They're soaked in creosote, I think. Ugh, you don't want them near your kids. anon

Please do not use rail road ties for any purpose. They should be disposed of as a hazardous waste at your local hazardous waste facility b/c creosote will leach out in a regular landfill and contaminate our ground water. Railroad ties are treated with creosote which is classified by the WHO and US EPA as probable human carcinogens, a known carcinogen by the US NTP, and listed as human carcinogens by the CA Prop 65 and TRI list.

Creosote is suspected of being a reproductive toxin and hormone disruptor. It will leach out of wood and go into your soil. It can be absorbed into your body by dermal contact from soil, breathing contaminated dust, and by eating the contaminated vegetables grown in the soil. I even read in an organic magazine that a gardener couldn't get anything to grow in her vegetable garden fenced in w/ railroad ties... perhaps due to the creosote the editor responded.

Beyond Pesticides has done extensive research on the toxicity of treated telephone poles, treated the same way as railroad ties. Search ''poison poles''.

Be aware that Home Depot, Lowe's, and other home ''improvement'' stores and nursuries have sold landscaping mulch containing scrapped treated lumber. In order to know for sure that it does not contain ground up treated wood, the bag should say ''100%...'' if it doesn't, like when I ordered a truckload of mulch for my yard, I had to call not just the store, but its supplier to have the MSDS sent. Do not take a worker's word for it... they usually go by what they've been told and not a legally binding document. Railroad ties, telephone poles, and CCA treated wood is ground up on a regular basis and sold as cheaper mulching material. It is horrible and until environmental groups threaten or file a law suit, our government which is usually married to industry, allow these atrocities to continue.

In 1968 when CCA wood was first introduced, workers immediately fell ill from grinding down the CCA wood. Germany banned CCA lumber in the mid 1970's. By mid 1980's U.S.'s injuries from CCA wood were piling up. In 1983 scientists and the Journal of American Med Assoc. warned people of CCA treated wood. In the Late 1980's Canada did the first controlled research showing the leaching of CCA out of wood. In 1990, the US Consumer Product Safety Commission published a flawed study on CCA wood that kept it on the market. In 1993 Sweden banned CCA lumber. In Dec of 2002, injuries are reported from CCA scrap found in landscaping mulch. In Nov 2002, the Environmental Working Group publishes a report about the high levels of arsenic in CCA treated woods found at Home Depot and Lowe's. Beyond Pesticides along w/ several other environmental groups sues the US EPA to ban all woods treated w/ creosote, PCP, and CCA. It wasn't until then did US EPA finally concede and requested a voluntary ban on CCA treated wood from being sold for residential use. It will not be available as of Jan 1, 2004. Warn others of the tempting sales to get rid of stockpiles until then, including the mulch. However, scraping of cresote and PCP treated lumber is not banned as far as I know. So we still need to check.

Parents for a Safer Environment ( currently working to reform pesticide use by local residents, contacted out pest control companies (particularly those who contract regular sprayings), and city parks. If you're interested in joining us for the educational campaign, media out-reach, and negotiations with local politicians, please join us. We have several scientists on board, but need more folks with knowledge in marketing, advertising, editing, graphics, etc.. Susan

Definitely do not use railroad ties anywhere in the garden (except possibly for informal steps in the back forty)! The creosote that oozes out is toxic and is also very sticky and messy. Although they used to be used commonly for many landscaping purposes, they are rarely used now that more information is available re toxins. Railroad ties are considered toxic enough that they can legally be disposed of at only one dumpsite in the whole state (near Fresno I think)- they are not allowed in regular landfills.

An alternative is what are called landscape ties which are pressure treated wood, saturated with a much less toxic preservative. You can use these for the structure, for strength, and surface them with either smooth-finished redwood 1X lumber, or with one of the fake wood products now used for decking (it won't rot, looks decent). I'd recommend covering the top and side faces of the ties so that the kids don't contact the surfaces of them. anon

Though railroad ties can be very attractive in a landscape, they absolutely shouldn't be used in an area where people (especially children) will have exposure to them, nor should they be used to support vegetable beds. They are preservered with creosote a known carcinogen. Joan

Good question. There are a lot of options for a sandbox border. You will probably get a spectrum of opinions on this. Those who are concerned about any chemical expsosures to children will say, ''Absolutely not.'' Those who prefer to look at the risks relative to other eveyday risks may come to a different answer depending upon the specifics. Railroad ties generally have been treated with creosote as a wood preservative. That is what gives them the distinctive smell and dark brown color. Most ceosote is made as a by product of heating coal to very high temperatures in the absence of oxygen. This creates among other things a class of compounds called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons or PAHs. Some PAHs are carcinogenic in animal tests and probably are in humans as well. PAHs have many sources including cigarette smoke, charcoal grilled meats or vegetables, coal tar shampoos and medicines used for psoriasis, and just about any time that organic material is incompletely burned as in wood smoke. The amount of exposure to PAHs from these sources varies tremendously; from enough to have a medicinal effect as in the coal tar products to negligible from sitting around a campfire on vacation. Sorry for the long winded background. To cut to the chase, there are three likely ways that young children may get exposure to creosote in ties: splinters as you mention, general skin contact and oral from putting stained hands or a piece of treated wood in the mouth. I think the splinter route is the least important. It is not going to happen very often and the amount of material that gets in the wound is negligible. If the splinter were large enough to carry chemically dangerous amounts of creosote, you would be calling 911 and cancer 20 years in the future would be the last of your worries. Oral contact might be a problem for children still in the oral stage of development if they spent much time on the ties themselves but I tend to think is not a significant problem. General skin contact is the mot likely in my mind to be the largest potential exposure route. Sitting on the ties with bare legs etc. and touching them with the hands. So, after all of this what is my advice?

I don't think that railroad ties as a sandbox border create a chemical exposure risk that is significant relative all of the other risks around them. Having said that, I would not buy brand new ties, since the older weathered ones will have less creosote near the surface (although the potential for splinters may be greater) to get on the skin and stain clothes. Also, especially if you live in the hotter parts of the Bay Area, newwer ties can sometime have little pools of nearly pure creosote that puddle on the surface increaseing skin and clothing contact. By the way for our sand box I used landscaping timbers and when they rotted after 10 years I replaced them with a stone border. I did not consider ties, because I was doing this myself and could not move them without help, and I did not have a chain saw to make the necessary cuts. matheny

I'm pretty sure that old railroad ties are pressure-treated with arsenic and/or creosote to prevent them from deteriorating. If they've been previously used and exposed to weather, some of these chemicals can (and probably will) leach out of the lumber. So, they're probably not the best material to use for something that children will spend a lot of time using. Redwood is a natural material that weathers well. It's probably more expensive, but far less poisonous. I think cedar might work untreated, as well. Erich

Railroad ties are treated with creosote - a toxic material - to make them more resistant to rot. For this reason, I would think twice about using them in landscaping for your yard, let alone a child's sandbox. Even if the child doesn't get a splinter, the child will probably be in contact with the wood and then may put hands in mouth. Creosote also gives off nasty odors. I would also caution you against pressure-treated wood for similar reasons. Pressure is used to force chemicals, such as pentachlorophenol or copper chromated arsenic, into the wood. You don't want your kid playing around chemicals like that. I would suggest redwood, or if you are concerned about splinters/durability, you could consider a product like Trex - an engineered product made of recycled plastic and sawdust. EPA Mom

Do not use railroad ties in your backyard! Creosote oozes from them (the black stuff) and it is linked to various cancers -- most commonly skin cancer. Avoid touching it whenever you see it installed at other places. There are plenty of other materials you can use to build a sand box. The newer pressure treated woods are made with out arsenic -- and should be pretty safe -- and last in exterior conditions. Or better yet used recycled or sustainably harvested redwood. Ecotimber in Berkeley is a good source for sustainably harvested wood. landscape advice

I passed this question along to my husband, a general contractor who ran his own firm for twenty years. His response: ''I would not use railroad ties in this application. They are treated with creosote, which is a petroleum byproduct and is not a good material to be in contact with. The advantage to railroad ties is that they are cheap and - because they are treated - they last along time when in contact with the earth. However, I would strongly recommend the use of either stone /concrete borders, untreated cedar, or redwood 6^T X 6^T in this sandbox. I would not use pressure-treated material since this material has the same problem that creosoted railroad ties has. Hope this is helpful. Deborah

Bugs in the sandbox - replace the sand?

May 2003

I was wondering if anyone has had trouble with their sandbox having various bugs & worms in it. I have noticed this recently and am wondering if it will correct itself once it dries out, or if I should get rid of all the sand & start over. I am thinking it is due to the wet weather recently. I hate to let my 4 year old play in it, when I am not sure what lies beneath. Our sandbox is a covered one, so I am not sure what to do to keep the pests out. Thanks.

Our sandbox (also covered) started getting smelly from the alternating wet / warm weather. I decided to empty it out, let it dry completly and start over. The sand is cheap and I feel a lot better about the kids playing in it when its ''clean''. Leslie

Everyone seems to have their own method of sandboxing. My experience was that the worms will try to reclaim the sand as dirt ... unless you have a bottom as well as a lid. If your sandbox is wood, you can staple some thick plastic sheeting at the bottom, poke a few holes in it for drainage, and then put the sand on top. I don't think you need to get new sand, just let the sand dry out well on sunny days. But if you don't have a bottom, it will just get wet and wormy again from underneath. Judith

Just an addition to the responses to this post - I lined the bottom of our sandbox with landscape fabric, available at any hardware or garden store. It keeps worms out but lets water drain away. Sandy