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Dear Matt:

Is my paper-chewing habit killing me? For years I've been tearing off fingernail-sized bits from legal pads, computer paper, note cards, paper napkins, and an occasional Reader movie review, chewing them into paper wads (elapsed time: 30 seconds), and spitting them out. I gnaw from 5 to 50 wads per day, depending on stress levels. Although I try to avoid nibbling colored papers and inked areas, I suspect that the pure paper I choose is loaded with dioxins and other poisons. I'd like to give up the habit, so spare no lurid detail.

JS, San Diego

With encouragement like that, how can I resist? Unfortunately, paper is a lot less life-threatening than you imagine. Recent studies have shown that Reader movie reviews are packed with manganese and riboflavin. In therapeutic doses, they've been known to cure certain disorders of taste and judgment. But I'll do what I can to instill in you the fear of nibbling, all the while being grateful I don't sit at the desk next to you.

Here's a rundown of some of the chemicals used in the pulping and bleaching processes that turn wood chips into a pale slurry of wood fibers: sulfur dioxide gas, sodium hydroxide, sodium sulfide, and chlorine dioxide. In general, these are very caustic, and inhaling or ingesting any of them in pure form would be the quickest permanent solution to your paper-chewing habit. But these chemicals are washed out of the pulp before it is dried and made into sheets. Only tiny amounts, if any, would remain in the finished product.

But once the tree has been reduced to a mass of sopping shreds, papermakers do add things that help produce an acceptable body and bright finish, and these remain in the paper. What they add depends on the paper's end use. The list includes titanium dioxide and zinc sulfide (white pigments), barium sulfate (the stuff you drink when you have an upper GI x-ray), rosin (a turpentine byproduct), alum, clay, calcium carbonate (lime), and casein or other water-based adhesive. Toxinwise, a relatively wimpy collection.

If paper makes up a substantial part of your diet, you'd be better off gnawing on the cheapest grade you can find - lumpy, soft newsprint sold as inexpensive drawing paper, or cheap paper towels and toilet paper, matchbooks, undyed construction paper, and cheap cardboard. These might be considered the granola of papers, not heavily refined and containing a larger percentage of water-processed ground wood pulp. High fiber, low toxicity, and with a little milk and sugar, a real taste treat. Avoid that expensive, high-rag-content bond stationery, though. Eat that stuff and you'll be chewing on somebody's worn-out shirt or dress. Rag bonds are made from just that, shredded cotton salvaged from discarded clothes too funky to resell or from otherwise useless remnants sold by cotton mills.

That's about all the aversion therapy I can offer, J. Given the wide variety of 12-step programs, though, I'm sure you'll have no trouble finding a convenient meeting of Spitwads Anonymous.

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