A new masterpiece is born.

Are Lead Pencils Harmful for Children?

by Martin Malcolm

That drawing of a fire truck you proudly stuck on the fridge is full of innocent joy. OK, it's hazy on the details, but the wild lines and crazy colors make up for that. As you watch a bunch of toddlers at work on a new masterpiece, one of them sucks a pencil. Your peace of mind vanishes. Is the pencil lead harmful? It's natural to worry, but once you get up to speed on the facts, you'll find you can relax.

1. Pencil Lead

What we call "pencil lead" is, in fact, not real lead at all. It's a substance called graphite. Lead is highly toxic, but graphite is not. The paint on the outside of your kid's pencil is lead-free, too. The campaign group Washington Toxics Coalition also approves crayons and colored pencils for kids' use.

2. Sucking and Sampling

As well as food, toddlers love to put a lot of other things in their mouths. It's all part of their drive to suck, sample and explore the world around them. Although your child's pencils do not contain toxic materials, they do have sharp points and can produce splinters. When you spot your young artist sucking on a pencil, gently discourage the habit, by saying, "We draw with pencils. We don't suck them."

3. Chewing

Toddlers who chew absentmindedly on their pencils as they draw could end up damaging their teeth. When we bite down on a hard object like a pencil, we often don't realize how much pressure we exert. According to the American Dental Association, if such chewing gets to be a habit, teeth can end up cracked and damaged. Tackle that habit before it takes hold, telling your toddler, "We chew food. We don't chew pencils."

4. Small Objects

Keep a close eye on young children whenever they use small objects such as pencils. Although you don't have to worry about lead poisoning from pencils, anything this size could become a choking hazard if a young child tries to swallow it. Remove any very small and broken pencils to keep your toddler extra-safe.

5. Lead Hazards

Although pencil lead is not a health concern, children can take in lead from many other sources, such as chips of house paint applied before 1978, dust, lumps of soil and some cosmetics or ceramics. The Children's Hospital Los Angeles has an online lead-safety quiz to identify potential hazards (see Resources 1). If you think your child has swallowed lead or breathed in lead dust, ask your doctor to check, using a simple blood test.

About the Author

British writer Martin Malcolm specializes in children's nonfiction. His books include "A Giant in Ancient Egypt" and "Poetry By Numbers." His schoolkids' campaign for the Red Cross won the 2008 Charity Award. A qualified teacher, he has written for the BBC and MTV. He holds a Master of Arts in English from the University of London.

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