Last week, Stanley landed itself in hot water after a safety advocate went viral for pointing out that the company uses toxic lead in cups, tumblers, and other products. The internet, which spent recent months celebrating Stanleys as the must-have hot girl product, went ballistic. Stories about the leaded Stanley cups cropped up everywhere from the New York Times to the TODAY show, and Hydro Flask—Stanley’s chief competitor—seized the opportunity. Hydro Flask ran posts on social media boasting about its lead-free manufacturing process. Here’s the irony: Hydro Flask used lead in its cups, too, until the company was called out by the exact same safety advocate.
Lead’s pretty bad for you. Minuscule amounts of the heavy metal can be toxic, especially for children. The effects of lead poisoning in kids include learning and developmental disabilities, lower IQ, behavioral and emotional problems, and more. In adults, long-term lead exposure can lead to issues including high blood pressure and brain and kidney problems. Drink up!
“For over a decade, Hydro Flask has NOT had lead in our sealing process,” the company said on Instagram. “We aim for a higher standard.”
Hydro Flask does meet that higher standard, according to Tamara Rubin, a noted lead safety activist and expert who runs the website Lead Safe Mama. Rubin’s tests show that Hydro Flask products are lead-free. “I’m the reason Hydro Flask is lead-free,” Rubin told Gizmodo. Back in 2011, Rubin’s tests turned up dangerous amounts of lead in Hydro Flask products, but after she contacted the company about it, it changed its manufacturing process and got the lead out. Safety is worth celebrating, but Given Hydro Flask’s history, it’s a bit of a case of the pot calling the insulated metal cup black.
Hydro Flask didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Back in January, it was Stanley’s turn for the Lead Safe Mama treatment. Rubin tested Stanley’s products and reported that a sealant on the inside of Stanley cups contains 300,000 to 400,000 parts per million lead. “All of the insulated stainless steel Stanley products are sealed with a lead dot,” Rubin said.
At this point, that’s no secret. A Stanley spokesperson directed Gizmodo to a statement on the company’s website acknowledging its use of lead but didn’t answer specific questions. Stanley says that it uses the poison in an “industry standard pellet” that’s used to sew up the vacuum insulation layer on the bottom of its products. That leaded pellet is then covered with a little metal disk featuring the company’s logo. “Once sealed, this area is covered with a durable stainless steel layer, making it inaccessible to consumers. Rest assured that no lead is present on the surface of any Stanley product that comes into contact with the consumer nor the contents of the product,” Stanley says.
Rubin confirmed there’s no lead on the outer layer of Stanleys, but she doesn’t find that reassuring. “In the last couple of days alone I’ve had something like 300 people contact me and tell me that that disc on the bottom of their Stanley’s fell off within a week or a month of normal use,” Rubin said If you touch that pellet on the inside and then pick up a piece of food, you could expose yourself to lead, Rubin said.
We’ve known about lead poisoning for over 2,000 years, so you might be asking yourself why a company that makes drink wear would use it. There’s a simple answer: with certain exceptions, it’s legal and it saves money.
“It’s the cheap alternative, which is really frustrating when you consider that we’re talking about expensive products,” Rubin said. Stanley’s flagship Quencher mug costs $35.
Sadly for you and your body, it can be legal to use, even in drink wear. According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, lead cannot be present on the external surfaces of children’s products in any concentration higher than 100 parts per million, but the rules for adults are far looser. The CPSC said those limits don’t apply to parts of children’s products that are inaccessible through normal use, however.
Stanley has a whole kids line of mugs and cups, but the company maintains its products are safe and says it meets all US regulatory requirements, which it says it verifies using third-party labs. Rubin disagrees; she said she’s filed a complaint with the CPSC. “Stanley says this button covering the lead sealant doesn’t come off, but it does,” Rubin said.
If all that isn’t dumb enough for you, let’s fire up the global supply chain mobile. Hydro Flask may be blasting its competitors, but the truth is it’s really just picking a slightly different factory in China to make its products. The same goes for most big-name American brands selling insulated cups. In fact, they all use factories that are practically down the street from each other in Zhejiang, China.
A website called ImportYeti makes it easy to look up shipping manifests, itemized records of all the goods on a cargo or container ship, complete with details about who sent them and where they’re going. Type in the name of a company, and you’ll get an indication of which factories they’re working with. If you’re really savvy, you can even look up those factories on a site like AliExpress and find cheap dupes of name-brand products.
For example, Stanley’s parent company PMI Worldwide has imported a lot of “Vacuum Flasks Vessels” from a company called Gint Vacuum Flask Technology, according to ImportYeti. Hydro Flask often works with a factory called Feijian Industrial Trade, the website says. Both companies partner with the exact same Chinese manufacturer called Haers Vacuum Containers, ImportYeti reports. Again, all of these factories are in the same parts of the same city.
With some exceptions, “a lot of the companies that manufacture these types of products aren’t paying attention to the details of what they’re making and how they’re making it,” Rubin said. “It’s an oversight issue, it’s a made-in-China issue, but it’s also an industry-wide issue because I think they’d probably still be using lead if they were made in America because it’s legal.”
Over the last few weeks, a lot of people concerned about lead have posted videos about self-administered home lead test kits. Rubin cautions against these kinds of tests. “Home lead test kids aren’t reliable,” Rubin said. Many “are designed for testing for lead in paint, not designed for testing consumer goods.”
However, there is a resource you can try, thanks to Rubin’s work. She uses an industry standard process called XRF testing to evaluate products for lead and other heavy metals and has amassed a database with thousands of products on her website. Lead exposure is a serious and potentially life-threatening issue, and testing should be left up to professionals if there’s any question about the safety of the products in your life.