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When Chris McKeon’s daughter got sick in late September, he thought he knew exactly where to point the blame—the sandboxes at Stead Park. “Sandboxes in urban areas have health issues,” says McKeon, 45, an education technologist and Dupont Circle resident.

If there were an endangered-species list for playground equipment, the sandbox would probably be right up there near the top. Lacking the visceral thrill of the monkey bars or the immediate gratification of the twisty slide, the sandbox just sits there, lumpishly out-of-date. Indeed, the only ones who really seem to appreciate sandboxes these days are those who appreciate them for all the wrong reasons. “Dogs go there, cats, squirrels,” says Maryse Beliveau, chief of Natural Resources of the Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR). “I was told there were vagrants using it as an outside bathroom.”

Keeping this in mind, it was easy for McKeon to associate the sandboxes with his daughter’s illness. “My daughter played in the sandbox for five minutes or less and had a rash all over her face and her hand,” he says. Wanting to warn his neighbors about the possible health risk, McKeon took his complaints to a neighborhood e-mail discussion group.

Soon after, another Dupont Circle child developed a post-sandbox rash. Afraid of a possible hot zone percolating in their midst, parents contacted Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Mark Bjorge, who took the complaints to the DPR. The next day, the sand was removed from the boxes. But with the sand gone, the empty boxes needed to be refilled—and given the problems with the previous material, some parents thought that a change was in order.

Perhaps in the old days parents would have sneaked down to the seashore under cover of night armed with a pickup truck and some shovels, and after a few hours of digging returned to their local playground with their silty gains. These days, however, sandbox politics are much more complicated. The most common filler found in sandboxes is a yellow, coarse-grained sand called “construction sand.” But some of the Dupont Circle parents were enamored of a finer, whitish sand such as the type found at Rose Park in Georgetown, the sort of sand that you’d expect to find at Pebble Beach. When asked about this type of sand, Beliveau mentions that it’s easily inhaled by low-to-the-ground toddlers. “It’s more like an ashtray sand,” she says. “Very fine, more volatile. I know that parents like it because ‘It’s white.’ But that shouldn’t be a factor.”

Another camp, including McKeon and Beliveau, preferred pea gravel, a blend of small rounded stones often used as a sand substitute. “We were thinking of hygiene,” says McKeon. “Pea gravel sounded like it drained out better.”

But the idea of pea gravel bothered some residents, who didn’t like the idea of a sandbox filled with little rocks. “I think that people have nostalgia for sandboxes,” says Bjorge. “Nobody has fond memories of the old gravel box.” And although the pea gravel might have been nominally more sanitary, some were concerned that it would prove a poor substitute for sand in other respects. “You can’t mold it, you can’t play with it—why have sandboxes?” asks parent Wendy Meltzer.

After a lengthy online debate and informal vote proved inconclusive, Beliveau scheduled a Saturday-morning meeting with the parents to discuss the merits of the various sands and sandlike substances. Only two people showed up, one of whom was Meltzer, advocating on behalf of sand. “I don’t know that sand is so horrible,” she says.

Soon after the meeting, the DPR refilled the boxes with the same type of construction sand that was there before. Although McKeon is impressed by the department’s quick turnaround in responding to his concerns, he still casts a suspicious eye at the plain old sand in the sandbox. “I think from now on I’m going to check the sand before I let [my children] play in it,” he says.CP