Is pen ink dangerous?

Googling a yes/no question is like putting a tiny drop of ink in water. All your results will be colored by it. |  Vincent Botta  on  Unsplash

Googling a yes/no question is like putting a tiny drop of ink in water. All your results will be colored by it. | Vincent Botta on Unsplash

Looking to kill five minutes in the school pickup line? Try one of my favorite Google games: type a patently ridiculous question and see how the search results incite panic.

For example, ask “Is pen ink dangerous?” and you’ll find the Illinois Poison Center, as well as links to articles on popular sites like Livestrong and Heathfully. You’ll also find articles about related dangers, like this surgical article on pen and pencil injuries in children, which features a terrifying sidebar of related articles on penetrating neck wounds. Keep scrolling and you’ll find that while pen ink might not be toxic, red pen ink is bad for your kids’ mental health.

Your search results will also show that lots of people have asked this question before you, in discussion forums with parents who swallowed ink while pregnant, whose babies swallowed pen ink, and whose kids or kids’ caregivers drew pen ink tattoos.

The obvious two-fold solution to this inky menace is to remove all pens from your home and campaign for their removal from classrooms. A pencil-only household is the only way to prevent ink-related illness or injury.

Then again, pencils can explode in space. If your child is a future astronaut, your inkless household will deprive him of crucial pen practice. Better to take the risk and buy the pens.

A much better solution to your pen problem is to realize you don’t have a pen problem. To do this, you need to learn to Google better.

First, ask a real question. A search like “Is pen ink dangerous?” is doomed to fail because you already knew the answer, or at least what you hoped it would be: no. But your search strategy worked against you, because an internet search answer to a yes/no question is almost always yes. Your search didn’t reassure you; instead, it prompted a house-wide Bic roundup. Instead of asking a broad yes/no question, opt for a specific question. Worried about choking? Don’t search for “Can you choke on pens,” but for “safety regulations for pen caps.” (Fun bonus: you’ll learn why pen caps have little holes).

Second, identify the fuzzy terrors in your search results. The articles linked in the dangerous ink search results lean heavily on the terms “toxic” and “non-toxic,” which make pen ink seem sinister. But those terms are rarely defined, which makes it difficult to identify what actual dangers pens might pose.

Third, unless you are the host of a comedy podcast mining for content, steer clear of discussion forums.

This pen ink example is of course ridiculous. Parents should not fear art supplies. But practicing with a ridiculous example is a great way to prepare you for those days when the questions get bigger and the stakes are much higher.