Show us a kid who’s been to the park or the beach, and we’ll show you a kid who’s eaten sand.
If you think back hard enough, even you can probably remember exactly how gritty that sand feels in your teeth, in the same way that you know exactly how salty Play-Doh is and how delicious bath-water tastes.
Eating things we shouldn’t is a universal part of childhood. But that doesn’t mean parents won’t freak out when they see their darling baby shove a fistful of dirt in their slobbery little mouth.
So, how bad is it when a kid eats sand? Well, according to experts, it’s not great, but also not a huge cause for alarm.
WATCH: Turns out beach sand is super gross. Story continues below.
While some sand can contain fecal material and bacteria, overall, the risk of kids getting sick from eating it is relatively low, Dr. Michael Dickinson, a pediatrician in Miramichi, N.B, and former president of the Canadian Paediatric Society, told HuffPost Canada.
“There’s probably no cause for panic,” Dickinson said.
But wait ... what was that about poop in sand?
We already knew pools and beach-water are full of poop bacteria that can make people sick, but lo and behold, so is sand. In fact, scientists have found “fecal bacteria” in beach sand at levels 10 to 100 times higher than the nearby seawater, according to the ACS journal Environmental Science & Technology.
Park or sandbox sand isn’t safe from poop bacteria, either. A 2017 Spanish study found that playground sandboxes can harbour strains of the bacterium Clostridum difficile, Reuters reports.
Essentially, they’re “swimming pools without disinfecting chlorine,” Dr. Marc Siegel, a professor of medicine at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City, told CBS News.
It’s not so bad, though
But, Jose Blanco, a researcher from the Spanish sandbox study, told Reuters that even bacteria in sand isn’t cause for alarm.
“We have to learn to live with these agents. If our children live in a highly clean environment, their immune system will not be developed in the correct way, and probably, problems like allergy will be present,” he added.
WATCH: Why you might want your kids to get dirty. Story continues below.
That thinking allides with the research by Canadian scientists Brett Finlay and Marie-Claire Arietta, the authors of Let Them Eat Dirt. Finlay, a microbiologist at UBC, previously told Global News that our over-emphasis on hygiene means today’s kids aren’t getting enough exposure to microbes, which could be causing an increase in allergies and asthma.
“We have to ease off a bit on the hygiene,” Finlay said. “If kids are vaccinated, the chance of them picking up a standard infectious disease is much less than it used to be.”
That said, parents shouldn’t exactly be encouraging their kids to eat sand, Dickinson told HuffPost Canada.
The risks are rare
While it’s extremely rare, kids could get severely sick if they happen to eat sand contaminated with roundworm-infected raccoon poop. Baylisascaris infection most commonly affects kids “who are more likely to put dirt or animal waste in their mouth by mistake,” the Centers for Disease Control and Infection (CDC) notes on its website.
There’s also the risk of toxoplasma infection, which can happen if a kid eats sand contaminated by the feces of an infected cat. Toxoplasmosa infection is also spread via food and congenitally, so the rates of infection are much higher— CDC reports that 11 per cent of the U.S. population of people over age six has been infected.
But most people get no symptoms at all and some may feel like they have the flu. However, in severe cases (usually in people with weakened immune system) it can cause brain, eye, and organ damage, CDC notes.
Among their various tips for prevention and control for both infections, CDC recommends keeping sandboxes covered when not in use.
So your little rascal ate sand ...
If you do catch your kid with mouthful of sand and they’re not spitting it all out, sweep their mouth out with your fingers, and offer them a swig of water, Dickinson told HuffPost Canada.
The good news is that the experience of eating sand is usually a pretty negative one, so most kids won’t be tempted to do it repeatedly, he added.
“It might just be a one-time phenomenon.”