Can I eat snow?

The East Coast's recent bout with snow, arriving just ahead of spring, showered a certain age-old question back onto people's lawns: Is this stuff safe to eat?

As with most health-related topics, the answer isn't so simple. "It kind of depends," Alaska-based family medicine physician Dr. John Cullen tells U.S. News.

Cullen knows a thing or two about snow – as he should considering he's in the town of Valdez, which he says sits about 350 miles from Anchorage and receives 27 feet of snow per year. He's been a denizen of the snowy locale for 23 years and an avid consumer of the precipitation.

Related: Winter around the world:

But before you go ahead and grab a handful yourself, here's what Cullen suggests you keep in mind:

Wait until after the first few inches hit the ground. Snow can both pick stuff up on the way down (it does a good job of cleaning the air) and once it lands, so the freshest snow after those first few inches fall should be safe for you to eat. NPR reports the "most common" pollutant that snow could absorb is black carbon, aka soot. That said, Jeff S. Gaffney, a professor of chemistry at the University of Arkansas, Little Rock, told NPR that snow contaminants are "all at levels well below toxic."

Don't wait too long. Snow that's been out for a couple of weeks could certainly get contaminated if blown around by wind, and there's a chance of getting food poisoning from something like manure.

Keep away from snow that's been plowed. Similarly, plowed snow will mix in with whatever is on the road. Think dog poop.

Avoid yellow and pink snow. While yellow snow is traditionally what comes to mind when you think of snow to avoid (often the result of people or critters relieving themselves outdoors), Cullen warns there's a type of algae called Chlamydomonas nivalis – which appears pink in snow – that can cause diarrhea.

Hydrate yourself with something else. "It doesn't do much for quenching your thirst," Cullen said of snow. A handful of it is equal to maybe a teaspoon of water – aka enough to wet your lips, but that's about it. Eating it will also bring your body temperature down, so it's not the best idea if you're already cold.

All told, opinions differ on the practice, as NPR points out. "As a mother who is an atmospheric physical chemist, I definitely do not suggest my young kids to eat snow in urban areas in general," Parisa Ariya of Canada's McGill University told the Huffington Post.

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