Q. I know that lead is terrible for the environment and also a serious health threat, so I hesitate to use pencils. But plastic pens seem like a bad idea, too. What can I stock up on before heading back to college? — Meredith, CO
A. Actually, pencils have always been made with non-toxic graphite, not lead. When a huge deposit of graphite was discovered in the 1500s, it was mistakenly thought to be a form of lead, and the name stuck, at least for colloquial use. So if you can get past those nightmarish, bubble-filling SAT memories, feel free to return to the good old no. 2 pencil. Opt for ones made from reclaimed or FSC-certified wood, or even from compressed recycled newspapers. As with any type of recycled product, always look for the highest "post-consumer recycled content" percentage available -- upwards of 50 percent is a good goal. Recycled and refillable pens abound as well, and there are even non-toxic highlighters on the market. Always go for the least smelly option you can find -- strongly scented ink usually means your pen or marker is emitting unhealthy VOCs, or volatile organic compounds.
Story by Tobin Hack. This article originally appeared in Plenty in July 2008. The story was added to MNN.com in May 2009.