As Georgetown is blanketed in the fluffy white stuff for the first time in months, students unaccustomed to winter weather will be tempted to catch snowflakes on their tongues. While proscriptions against eating yellow snow have become cliché (because duh), no one seems to know if eating snow at all is safe. Vox did some digging and there doesn’t seem to be a clear answer.
The two chief concerns center around chemical pollutants trapped in the water and bacteria in the particulates, namely Pseudomonas syringae, which is a pathogen that affects plants.
Naturally, Canada seems to have the most authoritative answer. The Canada Safety Council wrote in 2009 that the P. syringae is present in similar levels in snow across the world. While it’s not good to eat, it’s not dangerous either. After all, you eat bacteria on a daily basis (pretty much every time you eat). The CSC went on to recommend that children not “make a meal” out of the snow, though a few flakes won’t hurt anybody.
The story with pollutants is even more unclear. The upper atmosphere is exceedingly good at mixing up pollutants—so much so that airborne chemicals from India can be found in snow on the ground in Northern Canada days later, so it’s not the case that rural snow is safe whereas urban snow isn’t. Will Sommer at Washington City Paper asked Donna Henry, a spokeswoman at D.C.’s Department of the Environment, if eating local snow is safe. Unfortunately, the District government doesn’t keep tabs on the chemical contamination of snow. They only test runoff after the snow is melted. Henry did venture to say that the snow is safe from acid rain but not necessarily other pollutants: “I think, of course, there’s some degree of pollution in the snow,” she said.
So it seems nothing is terribly harmful in freshly fallen snow. Just don’t hydrate yourself that way.