For some of us, the words "eating snow" bring up nostalgic feelings and being young, playing outside in the winter, and eating snow by the mitten full. I ate snow. I let my kids eat snow. The rule was "don't eat dirty snow." We didn't think beyond that and didn't test the snow. However, scientists test snow and can tell us what's in it. In this article, we'll see what scientists say about what they find after testing snow.
City snow is very polluted and not safe to eat.
Suburban snow probably has pesticides in it.
Remote areas also have snow pollution.
Newly fallen snow may be the cleanest to eat.
It is better to wait a few hours into snowfall to eat snow.
Can I eat snow from anywhere?
Fresh, clean snow is okay to eat — and to melt down and boil for coffee or to cook out in the wild. Understanding which snow is healthy to eat and which will likely get one sick is part know-how and part common sense. For example, freshly fallen snow is probably okay, depending on where it's falling, but it may also be accumulating pollutants as it filters the air on its way down.
Therefore, it's always best to wait an hour or two before eating falling snow — chances are it will be cleaner. Of course, if the snow looks dirty (or yellow), it's best to avoid it altogether. The snow found on roads or walkways is likely contaminated with dirt and grime — and who knows what else — so bacteria and other organisms will likely get someone sick.
It might seem like common sense, but it’s worth saying that city snow would not be considered safe to eat. Cities have more vehicles and a higher concentration of air pollution from vehicle exhaust. A 2017 study out of McGill University in Quebec, Canada, states that in just 30 minutes, large amounts of pollutants are found in the snow on the ground. The scientists tested the snow from a downtown area near major highways during rush hour. Vehicle exhaust contains toxic and cancer-causing substances, so eating city snow could be a health hazard.
Researcher Staci Simonich of Oregon University found pesticides in the snow in U.S. national parks in 2010. Simonich also believes suburban areas contain significant amounts of pesticides. However, when talking about kids casually eating snow, she would let her kids eat snow. In an interview with NPR, she said an occasional handful of snow has a very small concentration of pesticides and most likely is not a health hazard.
Remote or rural snow
Another group of researchers tested ground snow in remote areas like the Swiss Alps. They found that as snow falls, it picks up microplastics and toxic chemicals from the air. This tells us that even in wilderness areas, snow is being contaminated.
Time when you eat snow matters
There might be something to the phrase "freshly fallen snow". A Romanian scientist, Istvan Mathe, researched snow pollutants after seeing his children eating snow. His study comes from Sapientia Hungarian University of Transylvania in Miercurea Ciuc, one of the coldest cities in Romania. Freshly fallen snow that is only half a day old has very little bacteria. However, by the second day, the snow Mathe studied had dozens of bacteria growing in it. Therefore, it's probably best to stick to eating only freshly fallen snow.
A researcher from the University of Saskatchewan discovered that as snow falls, it attaches to pollution in the air and cleans the air. This means that the first snow that falls is the dirtiest. The snow that falls a few hours later would be cleaner, so that snow would most likely be safer to eat.
The scientists from McGill University also state that falling snow catches pollution in the air. However, this study did not specify if waiting a few hours would mean the snow is safer to eat. This may mean that even hours-old snow is not safe to eat.
Things to know before eating snow
If you want to eat snow, remember to:
- Eat snow that appears clean with no signs of dirt or animal waste.
- Avoid eating city snow due to high levels of pollutants.
- Choose snow that is away from roads or that has not been packed down by a snowblower or plow.
- Gather snow a few hours into snowfall as this may be cleaner.
- Only eat snow occasionally and in small amounts.
People have been eating snow for generations. There’s even a treat called Maple Taffy made with snow and maple syrup. Science tells us that the earth has lots of pollution, which makes its way into snow. After seeing the science, you may decide eating snow is not for you or your family. Or you may feel the occasional fun of eating snow is not a health risk.
- Environmental Pollution. Role of snow in the fate of gaseous and particulate exhaust pollutants from gasoline-powerd vehicles.
- Sapientia Hungarian University of Transylvania. Sapientia Study: Half-Day Old Snow Is Safe to Eat.
- ScienceAdvances. White and wonderful? Microplastics prevail in snow from the Alps to the Arctic.
- University of Saskatchewan. Hydrochemical Processes in Snow‐Covered Basins.
- ACS Publications. Sources and Deposition of Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons to Western U.S. National Parks.