The number of childhood lead poisoning cases decrease every year in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The percent of lead poisoning cases in U.S. children decreased from 7 percent of all children tested to less than 1 percent from 1997 to 2007. Children like to put things in their mouth and some objects do contain lead, but your child is not likely to be poisoned by pencils. Most "lead" pencils aren't really lead-based, but use graphite instead.
Lead Poisoning Mechanics
Lead is a heavy metal that's toxic to everyone, but children younger than 6 years old are especially vulnerable. In the bloodstream, too much lead can destroy red blood cells so that oxygen isn't carried to the organs. In the bone, lead can stop the production of blood cells, and it stops calcium from performing its essential duties in the cardiovascular and neural systems, according to KidsHealth.org.
Lead poisoning in children causes developmental delays. Symptoms include poor motor function, speech impairments, muscle and bone deterioration, kidney failure and neurological disorders. With extremely high doses of lead, children might pass out or have seizures, according to KidsHealth.org. Long-term exposure to lead can lead to behavioral problems and brain damage. If left untreated, children exposed to high levels of lead can fall into a coma or die.
Graphite in Pencils
Unlike pencils of olden days, modern "lead" pencils don't contain lead. Pencils use a carbon-based substance called graphite. Though graphite has many of the same physical properties as lead, it is not toxic. It's not a heavy metal, so the body can easily break it down and dispose of it. Unless the pencil is coated with a lead-based paint, getting lead poisoning from a pencil is virtually impossible, according to Dr. Sanjay Gupta, a CNN medical contributor. The toxicity of pencils and other consumer products are regulated by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which helps ensure pencils are safe and toxin-free.
Chewing pencils remains dangerous without the threat of lead poisoning. Sharp pencils in the mouth can cut a child's mouth. Sucking on objects could cause dental problems later in life. Children could choke on part of the pencil or the eraser. If swallowed, a pencil can damage the gastrointestinal tract and a surgical abstraction might be necessary. In the classroom, pencils can be covered with germs and if your child is chewing on her pencil in class, she is more likely to catch colds or the flu. Additionally, pencils can be coated with harmful substances. Teach your children to avoid putting pencils or any other nonfood objects in their mouths.
Other Sources of Lead Poisoning
Although pencils aren't a tremendous lead-poisoning threat, children can suffer lead exposure. Old paint or older insulation material has a high lead content. It's important to remove children from an older house during remodeling and always wear a mask if pregnant. Lead poisoning can be passed from mother to child. Never let children insert old toys or objects that could have old, lead-based paint. It's unlikely for a pencil to have lead-based paint because this sort of paint has been banned in the U.S. since the 1970s.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Number of Children Tested and Confirmed EBLLs by State, Year, and BLL Group, Children < 72 Months Old
- CNN: Children and Lead Poisoning
- KidsHealth.org: Lead Poisoning
- Bureau Veritas Group: Lead Regulations FAQ
- KeepYourChildSafe.org: Child Safety in the Home
- Jiyo Healthy!: Can chewing pencils be harmful for kids?
- Stockbyte/Stockbyte/Getty Images