It's safe as long as you teach them some basic guidelines.
Every weekend I take my youngest son for an hour-long hike through the forest while his older siblings attend cross-country ski classes. The last time we went, he collapsed dramatically and said he couldn't go on because he was so thirsty. I had no water, but then I realized we were surrounded by crystallized water in the form of snow. I suggested he take a few handfuls, let it melt in his mouth, and allow that to quell his thirst. It worked – and distracted him from the challenging hike because it was so fun.
Was I wrong to let my kid gorge on snow? I felt that the benefit outweighed the risk in that particular moment, but it got me thinking about the phrase I've heard so many parents and teachers shriek over the years: "Don't eat the snow! It will make you sick!" How accurate is that? Is snow actually a harmful substance to ingest? I always ignored the adults and ate it anyways, as my children probably do, too. But surely there are expert opinions out there that could lend some perspective, so I started digging.It turns out that snow on its own is safe, but it can come into contact with things that make it unsafe. So as long as you know where to find clean snow, and how to avoid the not-so-clean snow, you'll be fine. Here are some helpful dos and don'ts:
1. Wait a little before you dig in. Snow is one of those rare crops where you don't want the first pickings. Let it fall for a while before you start nibbling. This is because snow acts as an 'atmospheric scrubbing brush' of sorts, collecting pollutants as it falls. Says John Pomeroy, a researcher at the University of Saskatchewan, "The longer the snow falls, the lower the pollution levels in the air, and thus in the snow."
2. Go for the middle. If you're lucky to live in a place with lots of deep, fluffy snow, this is a good strategy. I tell my kids to skim off the top layer with their bare hands, eat from the middle, and leave the bottom. This prevents you from eating snow that may have come into contact with icky stuff on the ground, like dog poop, bird droppings, and who know what else. I encourage bare hands because they get washed more frequently than their mittens.
3. Don't stress out about pesticides. Sure, snow has been shown to pick up trace amounts of persistent pesticides, but a professor of environmental and toxic ecology at Oregon State University, Staci Simonich, told NPR that the levels measured in numerous U.S. national parks were "100 times lower than what's deemed safe for drinking water." And while the levels are likely higher in an urban backyard, the pesticide concentrations are so low and the amount eaten so small, that the dose is "not a risk to health."
4. Do stay away from certain kinds of snow. Don't eat snow that's been plowed, as it could have come into contact with sand and road salt. It looks less appetizing too, as it's often dirty and compacted. Avoid snow that falls on windy days. The wind can cause the snow to mix with dirt that's blowing around, which has potential to contaminate it. And never, ever eat yellow snow or snow that is discolored at all (but hopefully everyone knows that!).
Last word goes to Lenore Skenazy, author of Free Range Kids, who explains in her book a 2008 study that found snow picks up bacteria particles that can cause disease in some plants, including tomatoes and green beans. Her advice? "If your child is a tomato or a green bean, steer clear. Otherwise? Don't worry." She cites a paediatrician, Joel Forman, who says he knows of no clinical report of a child ever becoming ill from eating snow.
So, let them be kids. Celebrate the fact that they're playing outside, frolicking in the snow, enjoying winter as it's meant to be enjoyed. In fact, you could even teach them to make snow ice cream!