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Why there’s lead in Stanley water bottles — and the real reason that’s a problem

Consumers are probably safe, but that doesn’t mean lead-laden cups are a good idea.

A man stands in front of shelves full of Stanley cups, reaching for one.
Turn your gaze upon this wall of Stanleys.
Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

To be an American is to fall in love with something that has the potential to kill you. Cigarettes, fast cars, hamburgers, lemonade — our country’s great history is peppered with love affairs and death. This week was no exception. Stanley Quenchers, the ultra-popular, beautifully soothing, indestructible water bottles that promise health, hydration, and ideal-temperature beverages, contain lead.

Is America’s newfound holy grail actually a poisoned chalice?

According to the company and experts, consumers should be relatively safe, provided that their Stanleys suffer no damage. That’s good news not just because lead exposure and poisoning is linked to some extremely nasty health conditions — heart disease, kidney disease, birth defects, etc. — but also because it seems like everyone knows someone who has a Stanley. These Quenchers are largely responsible for Stanley going from a reported $73 million in revenue in 2019 to $750 million in 2023.

But the immediate shock and scare of Stanleys’ risk to consumers might be obscuring a bigger, more concerning story about the real risks — and why a poisonous material is anywhere near our beautiful, expensive water bottles.

Yes, there’s lead in Stanley water bottles. Yes, you should return it if it’s damaged.

The initial discovery that Stanleys contain lead happened in March of last year. Tamara Rubin, a lead safety activist who runs the Lead Safe Mama website, tested a broken Stanley and found it positive for lead. Since Rubin’s discovery and in the thralls of the current Stanley consumer craze, Stanley owners have been testing their own bottles and posting results on social media, predominantly on TikTok.

Posting whether a Stanley leaches metal poison has become a trend within a trend online; some videos get hundreds of thousands of views. That makes complete sense. TikTok has become Stanley central, with influencers pushing big cups on their followers and Stanley collectors showing off their multiple Stanleys in varying colors. A potentially scary message that these bottles contain lead, complete with the suspense of a live test, is going to be wildly popular, even if the result is safe. Stanley owners are no doubt concerned but are also getting massive amounts of attention by posting videos of their concern.

Film, test, post, and repeat.

With the number of testing videos growing each day and some tests flagging positive, Stanley released a statement that their bottles do contain lead but that they’re safe unless the bottom of the cup is acutely damaged. “Our manufacturing process currently employs the use of an industry standard pellet to seal the vacuum insulation ... the sealing material includes some lead. Once sealed, this area is covered with a durable stainless steel layer, making it inaccessible to consumers,” Stanley posted on its website. The company added that the base layer is covered by its lifetime guarantee and that it would replace the cup if that layer was broken.

“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,” said Stanley in an additional statement obtained by CNN.

I followed up with Diane Calello, the medical director at New Jersey Poison Control Center at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, who reiterated that there should only be concern if the bottle is severely compromised. “Used correctly, the bottle does not pose a lead hazard. Accessing the lead pellet in the bottom of the bottle requires doing a lot of damage, and even then it would not be in contact with the liquid inside,” she said.

As Stanley explained and experts point out, Stanleys that are intact should be safe.

Why Stanley uses lead, and who’s actually paying for it

There’s one way to ensure there’s absolutely zero lead risk: Pick another brand, or just drink your water out of a glass.

“Choosing to use a lead-free bottle is the only way to guarantee avoidance of exposure,” Jeff Cresswell, co-owner and co-CEO of Klean Kanteen, told Vox. Cresswell explained that Klean Kanteen began its lead-free transition in 2016, and by March 2018, all of Klean’s insulated products were converted.

Because the title of “America’s favorite reusable water bottle” is highly coveted, rivals like Klean and Hydro Flask were quick to point out that their bottles are, unlike Stanleys, unleaded. “For over a decade, Hydro Flask has NOT had lead in our sealing process,” Hydro Flask said in a statement. “We aim for a higher standard.”

Cresswell explained that when Klean Kanteen announced its transition five years ago, lead was used industry-wide in the vacuum-sealing manufacturing process. Lead doesn’t have any outstanding physical properties, but it does have one really important financial one.

“Using lead is the cheaper option,” Cresswell said, explaining that Klean opted for a lead-free silica or glass plug. That meant investing in new ovens, doing rounds of performance testing, and navigating obstacles like higher defect rates — basically, it costs a lot more to go lead-free. “This material is about six to seven times more costly than the lead option,” Creswell told Vox, explaining that monetary investment is Klean’s commitment not just to consumers but also to its workers and the environment.

Pink Stanleys on a shelf.
These Stanley cups contain lead :(
Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images

That’s the crucial thing: While lead in a Stanley is sealed off and, as the company has reiterated, poses virtually no risk to buyers, there’s still a human impact.

“We’re ignoring the realities at both the production facility of workers’ exposure and the worker and the community exposure surrounding the facilities that recycle these,” said Tom Neltner, a chemical engineer and the national director of Unleaded Kids, a nonprofit organization that seeks to change and improve lead policy in the US.

Workers in the manufacturing process run the risk of lead exposure because of Stanley’s lead use. The factories where Stanleys are created also risk exposing the environment and neighborhoods around them (referred to as “fenceline communities”). Neltner points out that these manufacturing plants are usually in lower-income neighborhoods or overseas, where worker protections are weaker. And if someone decides to dump their Stanley (even if it’s consumer-safe), workers in waste and recycling and those living in towns surrounding those facilities also run the risk of exposure because of the lead pellet — all because of a Stanley they didn’t buy.

Echoing Cresswell, Neltner said that safer alternatives do in fact cost more. Tin, he estimates, is around $12 a pound versus lead’s $1. That switch would eat into Stanley’s massive profits. From a purely business perspective, lead lets Stanley maximize its earnings while keeping its production costs low.

When I asked Neltner for his insight about the risk posed to consumers, he said the Stanleys are probably low priority. The company issued a warning about the risk of a broken bottom cap and offered a repair option, which is in line with how he wants to see companies act. He explains that there are very legitimate uses of lead in American life (“If you’re getting an X-ray, I really like a lead apron!”) but says, “We just really need to eliminate all the nonessentials.”

Still, the shock and dismay from consumers that Stanley is using a harmful material raises basic questions about why this is allowed at all. How much lead is in not just Stanley’s hydration stations but all of our products, and who is really paying the price?

Neltner hopes the Stanley shock leads people to ask bigger questions about the lack of lead regulations in the US. He explained that the US has stricter policies when it comes to children’s products. Though kids use them, Stanley Quenchers aren’t classified as kids-only, he said, and that means they aren’t subject to independent third-party lead testing. There are gaps and blind spots in who US regulatory policy protects and how, such that even when we’re paying $45 for a water bottle, our expectation of a lead-free experience may not be met.

Lead isn’t essential to Stanleys — nor does it seem in line with the company’s promise of a healthier, more hydrated life. But it is pretty important to their bottom line, and that matters a lot.

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