The enduring presence of lead: Why the Stanley water bottle and similar products raise concerns

By Claire Wolters | Fact-checked by Davi Sherman
Published March 5, 2024

Key Takeaways

  • Health agencies say there is no safe level of lead exposure. Many everyday items, however, still contain lead.

  • Agencies work to reduce the health risks of lead exposure by limiting the quantity of lead allowed in certain products and focusing on risks for children.

Lead exposure can cause severe health problems in children and adults. While most doctors know the dangers of lead exposure, questions remain about just how dangerous exposure can be—and whether it's possible to avoid exposure risks altogether. Public concern regarding lead has escalated following the discovery of lead content in the widely-used Stanley water bottle.

According to agencies like the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), World Health Organization (WHO), and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there is no established safe level of lead exposure. 

Risks for lead exposure

Since lead is an environmental element, people may be exposed to it in countless ways.

Some notable and dangerous pathways for exposure include contact with lead-laden products, such as lead paint. Typically, for harmful effects to occur, the contact needs to take the form of inhalation or ingestion, not just touch. For children, however, agencies like the CDC warn about risks that result from touching lead products, as children often put their fingers in their mouths after touching things.

Among other harmful effects, lead exposure may increase a person’s risk of disability, death, brain damage, cardiovascular disease development, and chronic kidney disease development, according to the WHO. In 2019, nearly 1 million people died due to lead exposure, the WHO says.[]

Due to risks, the US government banned consumer use of lead-based paint in the 1970s, although lead paint can linger in older homes and buildings, according to the EPA. However, lead isn't completely banned when it comes to other consumer items; it can be found in everyday items like paint, water bottles, toys, and chocolate.[]

Reducing lead exposure without completely banning lead

For items allowed to contain a certain amount of lead, agencies have focused on some critical points for protecting consumer health, including:

  1. Focusing efforts on protecting children, as their developing bodies are more vulnerable to toxins and are at greater risk of unknowingly putting products containing lead in their mouths.

  2. Reducing the maximum amount of lead allowed in products.

  3. Retroactively recalling products revealed to contain too-high lead levels or pose a risk for exposure.

Below are some items for which the US has limited but not prohibited the inclusion of lead.

Lead in water bottles

Recently under scrutiny for its products containing lead is the popular water bottle brand Stanley. According to the company, Stanley uses lead within an “industry standard pellet to seal the vacuum insulation” of its products. The lead is covered by a steel layer, making it “inaccessible to consumers,” Stanley says,  thereby reducing risks that can come from exposure. So far, Stanley has not recalled or changed the design of its products following these complaints.[]

Other bottles containing lead, however, have been recently recalled. In November 2022, baby products company Green Sprouts recalled some of its stainless steel bottles and sippy cups after it was revealed that the base could break off, exposing users to a component that contains lead and posing a lead poisoning hazard to children.[]

Lead in candies

Lead can be found in chocolate, candy, and food products that adults and small children consume. The FDA notes the presence of lead in these food items and limits the amount of lead in candy. However, the agency does not completely ban lead in candy.[]

The FDA states that “[b]ecause lead may be present in environments where food crops are grown, and animals used for food are raised, various foods may contain unavoidable but small amounts of lead that do not pose a significant risk to human health.”

The FDA has also released draft guidance for reducing lead levels in several other foods intended for babies and children under two years of age.[]

Lead in children’s toys 

There are some regulations on lead in children’s toys in the US. Since 2009, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has required “toys and infant products to be tested to mandatory standards before being sold.”[]

This limits but does not prohibit lead use in toys. According to the most recent standard by the CPSC, updated in 2011, products designed or intended primarily for children aged 12 years and younger could contain no more than 100 parts per million (ppm) of lead.[] 

“Any children’s product on the market that does not comply with the new lead standards will be considered a banned hazardous substance,” according to the CPSC.[] 

Lead in plastics has not been banned, as it makes the product more flexible and/or is used in plastic toys to stabilize molecules from heat, according to the CDC.[]

Some laws have also granted exceptions to the rule for products that require lead to function properly and don’t pose health and safety hazards. Bicycles can include up to 300 ppm, for example, and all-terrain vehicles are exempted, according to the Consumer Federation of America.[]

To what extent these limits will decrease, or whether more total bans will be put in place, is yet to be seen.

What this means for you

Lead exposure can be dangerous and, in some cases, deadly. However, lead can be present in many everyday items. To protect your and your patient's health, encourage parents to steer children away from lead products, be wary about children putting toys in their mouths, and use products that meet or fall below maximum lead limits.

Share with emailShare to FacebookShare to LinkedInShare to Twitter