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How Gross Is It to Eat Snow?

Untouched snow—even caught straight out of the sky—is more than just frozen water.

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Jan 12 2018, 5:00pm

Dmitry Ageev/Getty Images

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The Scenario
There’s something about a fresh blanket of snow that makes your friend want to scoop her hand in and bring a few bites of the white stuff to her mouth—it’s almost like dunking a finger into a new jar of peanut butter. After the recent "bomb cyclone," Pinterest threw a bunch of snow recipes into your friend’s feed and now she’s thinking about serving up peppermint snow cocktails at tomorrow’s girls' night. Only problem: She’s not all that sure snow is, well, edible.

The Reality
Everyone (outside of your toddler nephew) knows to avoid chowing on yellow snow, but it turns out that untouched snow—even caught straight out of the sky—is more than just frozen water. In 2016, researchers from McGill University found that as snow falls to the ground, it soaks up pollutants in the air including nasty stuff from car exhaust known to be toxic and carcinogenic. (Study author Parisa A. Ariya, department chair of atmospheric and oceanic sciences at McGill University, says it’s enough to keep her kids from eating snow in urban centers.) And while snow that’s farther away from emissions sources (like city buses or coal-fired plants, which release soot picked up by snow) has less gunk lingering in it, suburban or backcountry snow is hardly pristine—a study published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology found a number of pesticides lingering in snow collected in some US national parks.


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The Worst That Can Happen
If your friend accidentally collects snow tainted by animal feces (hey—even if you can’t see it, the wind does a nice job of swirling contaminants around) her party guests could leave with a bacterial infection (like E. coli) or parasites like roundworms. There’s evidence that long-term exposure to high levels of some of the toxins Parisa found in snow can do a number on your health—Benzene, present in gasoline and cigarette smoke—can mess with your cell function, damage the immune system, and cause leukemia. Meanwhile toluene, also in gasoline, could screw with your central nervous system. And some agricultural pesticides have been shown to be endocrine disrupters, which can shake up the delicate balance of hormones in the body, possibly affecting reproductive abilities and heightening cancer risks. All that (terrifying) stuff said, it’s highly unlikely a few bites of snow would expose you to levels that put you at risk.

What Will Probably Happen
Zip. While there aren’t any studies on the long (or short) term effects of eating snow, most experts agree a small amount won’t do much, especially if you’re snacking outside of the city. (Parisa says when she’s in Northern Quebec, she’ll let her kids have a taste.)

What to Tell Your Friend
Unless she’s serving strawberry snowcones from the Arctic and not 2nd Ave, the treat’s a little unsavory. No big if she wants to stick her tongue out and catch a few flakes—odds are, it won’t change the course of her day. But keep in mind those pretty flakes contain water with a few hundred other contaminants.

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