Last week, Stanley found itself in a sticky situation after a safety advocate went viral for pointing out that the company was using toxic lead in mugs, tumblers and other products. Internet, which has spent recent months Celebrating the Stanleys as a must-have product for hot girls, has gone ballistic. Stories about leaded Stanley Cups popped up everywhere from the New York Times to the TODAY show, and Hydro Flask, Stanley's main competitor, seized the opportunity. Hydro Flask has posted posts on social media touting its lead-free manufacturing process. Here's the irony: Hydro Flask also used lead in its cups, until the company was called out by the same safety advocate.
Lead is pretty bad for you. Trace amounts of the heavy metal can be toxic, especially to children. The effects of lead poisoning in children include learning and developmental disabilities, lower IQ, behavioral and emotional problems, and much more. In adults, long-term exposure to lead can lead to problems such as high blood pressure and brain and kidney problems. Drink!
“For over a decade, Hydro Flask has NOT had leadership in our sealing process,” the company said on Instagram. “We are aiming for a higher level.”
Hydro Flask meets this higher standard, according to Tamara Rubin, a noted safety activist and expert who runs the website Lead Safe Mama. Rubin's testing shows that Hydro Flask products are lead-free. “I'm the reason Hydro Flask is lead-free,” Rubin told Gizmodo. In 2011, Rubin's testing found dangerous amounts of lead in Hydro Flask products, but after contacting the company about the issue, it changed its manufacturing process and eliminated the lead. Safety is worth celebrating, but given Hydro Flask's history, it's kind of a case of the pot calling the insulated metal cup black.
Hydro Flask did not respond to a request for comment.
In January, it was Stanley's turn to undergo Lead Safe Mama treatment. Rubin tested Stanley products and reported that a sealant inside Stanley cups contains 300,000 to 400,000 parts per million of lead. “All Stanley insulated stainless steel products are sealed with a lead point,” Rubin said.
At this point, it's no secret. A spokesperson for Stanley directed Gizmodo to a statement on the company's website, acknowledging its use of lead, but did not respond to specific questions. Stanley says it uses the poison in an “industry-standard pellet” used to sew back the vacuum insulation layer on the bottom of its products. This lead pellet is then covered with a small metal disc bearing the company logo. “Once sealed, this area is covered with a layer of durable stainless steel, making it inaccessible to consumers. Please be assured that no lead is present on the surface of any Stanley product that comes into contact with the consumer or on the contents of the product,” says Stanley.
Rubin confirmed there was no lead on the Stanleys' outer layer, but she doesn't find that reassuring. “In the last few days alone, about 300 people have contacted me and said the disc on the bottom of their Stanley fell off within a week or a month of normal use,” Rubin said. If you touch that pellet inside and then pick up a piece of food, you could expose yourself to lead, Rubin said.
We have known about lead poisoning for over 2,000 years, you may be wondering why a company that makes beverage wear would use it. There's a simple answer: With certain exceptions, it's legal and it saves money.
“It’s a cheap alternative, which is really frustrating considering we’re talking about expensive products,” Rubin said. Stanley's flagship Quencher mug costs $35.
Unfortunately for you and your body, it may be legal to use, even for drinking. According to Consumer Product Safety Commission, lead cannot be present on the external surfaces of children's products at a concentration greater than 100 parts per million, but the rules for adults are much more relaxed. The CPSC has stated, however, that these limits do not apply to parts of children's products that are inaccessible during normal use.
Stanley offers a variety of children's cups and mugs, but the company maintains its products are safe and says they meet all U.S. regulatory requirements, which it says it verifies using third-party labs. Rubin disagrees; she said she was filed a complaint with the CPSC. “Stanley says that button covering the lead doesn't come off, but it does,” Rubin said.
If all that isn't stupid enough for you, let's launch the Mobile Global Supply Chain. Hydro Flask may be blowing away its competitors, but the truth is that it's simply choosing a slightly different factory in China to make its products. The same goes for most major American brands selling insulated tumblers. In fact, they all use factories located in the same neighborhood in the same city in Zhejiang, China.
A website called ImportYeti makes it easy to find shipping manifests, detailed records of all goods on board a cargo ship or container ship, with details on who sent them and where they are going. Type in a company's name and you'll get an indication of which factories they work with. If you're really savvy, you can even search for these factories on a site like AliExpress and find cheap dupes of name brand products.
For example, Stanley's parent company, PMI Worldwide, imported a large number of “vacuum flask containers” from a company called Gint Vacuum Flask Technologyaccording to ImportYeti. Hydro Flask often works with a factory called Feijian Industrial TradeTHE website said. Both companies partner with the exact same Chinese manufacturer called Haers vacuum containers, reports ImportYeti. The sanctimonious criticism of Hydro Flask is really about choosing another plant practically down the street.
With a few exceptions, “many companies that make these types of products don't pay attention to the details of what they make and how they make it,” Rubin said. “It's an oversight issue, it's a manufacturing issue in China, but it's also an industry-wide issue, because I think they would probably still be using lead if they were made in the USA because it's legal.”
There is nothing inherently dangerous or concerning about products made in China, Rubin said. In fact, she often tells families that the designation “Made in China” can actually mean that a product is more probably safe if it's a mass-produced item from a major retailer like Target, Walmart, or Ikea. Large retailers often have too much to lose if regulations are violated. The problem, according to Rubin, is when small businesses partner with foreign factories. The large number of companies importing goods from China means customs officials do not have the staff to inspect and test every batch of items for security reasons.
Over the past few weeks, many people concerned about lead have posted videos about self-administered at-home lead test kits. Rubin warns against this kind of testing. “Home lead testing kits are unreliable,” Rubin said. Many “are designed to test paint for lead, not consumer goods.”
However, there is a resource you can try, thanks to Rubin's work. It uses an industry standard process called XRF testing to evaluate products for lead and other heavy metals and has built a database with thousands of products on it website. Lead exposure is a serious and potentially life-threatening problem, and testing should be left to professionals if you are unsure about the safety of products in your life.
Updated 02/10/2024, 3:51 p.m. ET: This story has been updated with additional comments from Tamara Rubin.