Lead Content of Brass Sharpeners.

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We took a short trip to Philadelphia last week. I promised my daughter we’d pop into Dick Blick, since we don’t have one in Baltimore. Among the varied treats in the pencil section were racks of Möbius and Ruppert brass sharpeners. I have always wanted the Alvin Bullet/M&P Grenate, and I couldn’t leave without the latter. I noticed a bizarre sticker on the reverse of the package:

WARNING: This product contains lead, known to CA to cause birth defects and other reproductive harm. Wash hands frequently.

My previous (current?) favorite pocket sharpener is a brass KUM Wedge that I picked up in Chicago in 2005 or 2006. I have no idea how many times I’ve used it while cooking, “coloring” with my daughter, or just jiggled it around in my pocket while standing on the bus. I have smelled it on my hands before, to tell the truth.
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Turns out that lead is added to brass to improve its machinability. This can include sharpeners, keys, etc. (More info here.)

I never thought there was lead involved in pencils (save perhaps the paint in very old ones). This is a small amount, though I am not sure if there is an amount of lead that is trivial enough to ignore, especially if you have Little Ones running around your Outpost. I know there is controversy surrounding Proposition 65 (which requires labels on the infamously PVC Moleskine books made by a company that seems to have never delivered their “safer” cover material and, I assume, never will). I can’t say there’s no PVC in my house, certainly. And, being 113 years old, I can’t say there’s no lead, either.
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Fortunately for Comrades concerned about surface lead, there is help from home brewers. I haven’t tried this myself, but we’d be glad to post anything from anyone who tries it.

Are there brass sharpener fans out there, and are folks…moved by this info? (Is it old news and something I’ve just always missed?) I’ve still been using my brass sharpeners. But I have to admit I’ve been washing my hands afterwards if my daughter is around.

11 Comments

  1. Thanks for letting us know about this.
    I wonder whether this warning sticker is used for all brass items or whether they check the lead content of the specific item before deciding that a product needs a warning label.
    If you have access to Ballistol (very common in Germany, but also available in many other countries), my guess would be that you can use that to remove any surface lead, too.

    • I wonder that, too. The Prop 65 warning for some (?) substances is required for even a “trace” amount, but I’m not sure if this was supposed to be a Prop 65-mandated decal.

      While maybe there’s some merit to being “on the safe side,” it can also make a person (or, in this case, CA) look a little nuts, LOL.

  2. logan

    CA is very strict about labeling, so much so that it has almost become a joke that they label everything.
    Their standard for brass is that it has to contain less than 0.25% lead to avoid the label.

    I would avoid letting children or pregnant women put those sharpeners in their mouths or beverages, but other than that you shouldn’t worry about it.

  3. Kim

    These warning labels are on everything here in California it seems, computers, nice glass, etc. It’s good to be aware that there are trace amounts of lead, but lead is a natural substance. I don’t think you need to even worry about washing your hands after handling these sharpeners.

  4. Curious that there’s much talk of lead right now, prompted by an article in Mother Jones. I don’t know what to make of it. But I play a National guitar (nickel-plated brass), and I have no intention of going back to wood.

  5. In August 2011 Congress and the President updated the Consumer Products Safety Improvment Act which among other changes reduced the standard for allowable total lead content in consumer product components from 300 PPM to 100 PPM. Surface coatings such as paint or lacquer have somewhat lower standards and with respect to most pencils have generally have been meeting those standards for some years. The new regulations also resulted in changes in testing and labeling requirements. Further, products specifically classified as Childrens Products also saw further increased restrictions and tougher testing standards. Similarly it seems European standards have also now tightened as well with respect to lead content.

    Products which cannot reduce below these new levels in brass or other components containing lead have subsequently been forced to substitute other raw materials that meet the standard. In the case of metallic balls for ball point pens which are also produced from brass an exemption was gained due to the lack of suitable substitute materials with respect to functional product performance and cost effectiveness of available substitutes and the low overall exposure risk from normal consumer use of such products.

    Some of my personal favorite sharpeners are the KUM one and two hole brass sharpeners that we traditionally offered for sale on our Pencils.com store. I really enjoy the added heft and feel of these sharpeners. Unfortunately, last year KUM notified us that they have now discontinued production of ALL brass sharpeners rather than deal with the added testing costs and headache of complying with the new regulations, even if they were close to or under the new limit. It’s interesting to see that certain other brass sharpener producers are chosing to move forward and are now labeling thier products, though I am not personally aware what level of testing is required and if these products have changed lead content formulation to meet the new standards. At this point we have not opted to add a new brass sharpener to our range of offerings as a substitute to the discontinued KUM items.

    With respect to pencils. Brass was discontinued as a raw material for ferrules many years ago and though the “brass” color remains quite common the materials used in almost all ferrules is aluminum.

    • Thanks for the insider info, Charles! I’m VERY disappointed to learn that KUM is no longer making the brass sharpeners. The brass wedge is my favorite pocket sharpener. I think I might have to hoard some away in case this baby ever falls out of my pocket.

  6. I have some brass pens, too, including a 2001/2002 Fisher bullet pen. After this long, some of the chrome has worn off (though I refuse to exchange it for a new one via their warranty), and the inside of the cap is just brass. I assume some gets transferred when the business half is inside the cap, almost entirely in there.

    Nonetheless. This [casual lead in brass] might be one of those rabbit holes I’d prefer to avoid. :)

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