Do pencils contain lead?

We have eradicated lead from pipes, paint and petrol, yet we still send our bright hopes for the future off to school with lead pencils in their bags. This will never be the next big cause, though, because while they aren’t exactly nutritious and delicious, pencils aren’t a health hazard either.

Pencil lead isn’t really lead, not in the modern sense anyway. The confusion comes about because everyday language hasn’t bothered to catch up with scientific knowledge.

The way we are taught at school tends to leave us with the idea that pencils are primitive and old-fashioned, but pencils are a much younger invention than pens. It wasn’t until an important deposit of black lead (or plumbago, Latin for lead ore) was discovered in England during the sixteenth century that pencils as we know them were invented. They became such a huge hit that exporting black lead was made illegal.

Today they are still made from the same stuff, mixed with clay to give it hardness, fired, and inserted in wooden holders. Back in the sixteenth century they called it black lead partly because it resembled metallic lead in some respects but mainly because, well, people just didn’t know any better. It took a good while longer before nascent chemists discovered first that black lead in fact contained no lead and then that in its pure form it was made up entirely of carbon.

By this stage, of course, pencil lead had become the term of choice, and people weren’t going to change just because some obscure scientist toiling in a laboratory somewhere told them to. Between themselves, of course, scientists adopted a new name, or rather borrowed an old one that had been floating around for some time and attaching itself to various minerals. The mineral itself has since found a great number of uses, from lubrication to moderation of nuclear reactions, but it’s name still reflects its original claim to fame: graphite, from the Greek for writing.

Despite the name, lead pencils are safe. The closest they come to causing lead poisoning is the creation of leaden prose.

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