Ohelo | Products
Does your insulated reusable water bottle contain toxic LEAD?
Isn’t it shocking that in 2023 we still need to be asking these types of questions? Are toxic materials being used to make items we are using every single day? Items that are sold to us as sustainable alternatives, that we assume are truly eco-friendly? Bottles and cups that we drink our water and coffee from?
Sadly, when it comes to insulated water bottles the answer is a shocking almost definitely yes! Almost all insulated bottles on the market still contain toxic lead. Terrifying, isn’t it?
As the UK’s only lead free insulated water bottle brand (and one of only a couple in the world), we are here to tell you all about lead in water bottles, where it is, why it is bad and what the alternative is. We will also take a quick look at other places lead used to be found (before being banned for health and environmental reasons).
Where is lead found in water bottles?
Lead is found in the material that is used to seal in the vacuum layer to the insulated bottle.
Why is solder needed at all? To create an insulated bottle, you start with 2 layers of steel already joined at the neck of the bottle, with a small hole on the outer layer at what will become the base of the bottle. The solder material is placed on this hole before the bottles enter a “vacuum oven”. This oven sucks all the air out, creating a vacuum inside the 2 layers, and heats up until the solder melts, completely covering the small hole and thus sealing the vacuum layer inside. The solder has a lower melting point than the steel, which is why it melts but the steel layers remain intact.
We spent many weeks visiting multiple manufacturers to find the best fit for Ohelo. Lead solder is simply industry standard and was absolutely everywhere. In fact, it is very difficult to find a manufacturer capable of making lead free insulated bottles - something we will discuss later.
Why is lead in water bottles bad?
Lead is toxic to both people and planet.
Children are particularly vulnerable to the toxic effects of lead due to their growing bones and other organs it can be deposited in. Lead exposure can lead to permanent health complications in children, including brain development and nervous system problems, resulting in permanent behavioural and developmental issues.
The World Health Organisation states “There is no level of exposure to lead that is known to be without harmful effects.”
As lead is not biodegradeable, any lead pollutants reaching our environment simply get more concentrated with time, increasing the hazards.
What other things was lead used for in the past? When was it removed? Why?
Electronics. Like insulated water bottles, lead solder was widely used in electronics for years. Unlike insulated bottles, it was banned for use in electronics by the EU in 2006. The EU took into account the lead leaching that happens when you recycle these items as well as the toxicity to makers when banning lead solder from electronics. Despite this, is remains as industry standard in steel insulated bottles – something we find quite troubling.
Petrol. Leaded petrol was widely used until it was banned in the UK in 1999 due the toxic emissions and the effect they were having on people’s health. Leaded fuel has been linked to many health problems, from heart disease, cancer and strokes, to developmental problems in children. Despite this being over 20 years ago, lead particulates can still be found in London’s air, leading experts to call for in-depth blood studies of the population, like those done in the USA, to understand any health implications and to create necessary plans for preventing re-introduction of legacy lead particles from soils and road dust into our air.
Paint. Historically lead was commonly used in paint for home decoration as well as children’s toys. Paint containing lead was banned in UK in 1992, with exception to historic building restorations. Given the historic use of lead paint, care should always be taken when renovating homes that pre-date the ban in 1992, with old paint tested for lead and then removed in a safe way, to avoid lead exposure to both those decorating and living in the building.
Water pipes. Perhaps the biggest possible exposure to lead for many people is the presence of lead piping supplying water to their homes. The Romans brought us lead pipes, with the word plumbing coming from the word plumbus, meaning lead. Tap water quality will depend on if there is lead or lead solder used in the piping, the temperature, and how long water sits still in pipes. This remains a significant threat for many of us, with one survey finding 6.2% of tap water samples contained above safe levels of lead.
Batteries. According to the UN Environment programme, “Batteries account for more than 80% of the global demand of lead. Improper recycling of used lead-acid batteries causes environmental pollution and health damage.”
How is lead solder covered on water bottles for consumer safety?
You now know that unless you have one of our lead free Ohelo water bottles, or a bottle from one or two other lead free insulated brands out there, that your current insulated bottle almost certainly has lead in it. How do other insulated brands using this lead material make this safe for you?
The main ways lead can get absorbed by your body are through ingestion, inhalation or by touching it with your skin.
For insulated bottles the solder material is used on the outer layer of the water bottles to seal in the vacuum. This material is not in direct contact with the water inside your bottle – unless there is a defect to the bottle – keep reading.
To make sure customers are not being exposed to the lead they are using, brands will usually cover this sealing point somehow. This can be done with a “fake base” or some kind – look for either a horizontal line close to the base of the bottle that shows a large fake base, a small metal disc that can be used, or a silicone/other material “soft touch” base that has been glued somehow to the bottom of the bottle. Some may simply use their standard paint to cover this weld seam to protect you from touching it. Finally, there have been some market recalls recently from brands who did not cover this solder point at all, with the lead solder easily touched by anyone using the bottle.
During the vacuumisation process trace amounts of lead can end up on the surface of the insulated bottles themselves – this is why it is so important to thoroughly clean these bottles before using them for the first time.
If lead is not touching me or my water, why is it a problem?
The problems it can cause you directly:
If the way in which the lead solder has been covered becomes damaged, or simply is not good enough, then you will be exposed to the lead solder if you touch it. If like a couple of brands with some of the most recent recalls the material is not covered at all, then you will be exposed to this material by touch (and also possibly ingestion if it is for a food compartment/container. If an internal seam in your insulated bottle becomes faulty and causes your vacuum layer to fail, then the water inside your bottle may be able to get into direct contact with this material – which would lead to lead exposure through drinking your water. Remember that the vacuumisation process also means lead particulates will coat the bottle surfaces, so you can be subject to lead exposure by touch and ingestion due to this migration of lead particulates.
The problems it can cause the people making the bottles:
The people that make insulated water bottles handle this material day in day out. While responsible manufacturers will provide gloves to handle the material with, in reality it is commonly handled with bare hands. In fact, it was offered to us by hand on many occasions when we looked at manufacturers, with workers wrongly explaining it to be safe to handle this way. With lead particulates released during the vacuumisation process, as well as handling the solder material itself, these workers are experiencing lead exposure at work.
The problems it causes if sent for recycling:
Stainless steel is endlessly recyclable. This means almost all insulated steel bottles are marked as easily and endlessly recyclable (it is one of the benefits of using stainless steel).
However, due to the use of lead solder, the majority of steel insulated bottles are not so simple to recycle and should be treated with care when they reach their end-of-life.
To start they can expose those working in recycling facilities to lead particulates. As they may not be expecting this exposure, those workers may not have adequate protection from this lead exposure.
Lead can leach into the environment from the recycling process. As lead is non-biodegradable this can lead to an accumulation of toxins and an ever-increasing pollution problem.
The presence of lead particles can render recycled stainless steel as unusable. In fact, only 0.015% of total lead in a heat of steel being recycled may cause quality issues, depending on what is being made from the recycled steel. Lead solder is difficult to detect at recycling centres, with best practice being to reduce any lead solders and contaminates reaching a steel recycling facility. This means that almost all steel water bottles should first have this material removed before being sent for recycling. This is not an easy process and means the majority of insulated bottles should not be recycled at street side in case they contaminate a whole melt of recycled stainless steel. In the construction industry a steel containing lead solder would go straight to landfill due to these issues – this is why lead solder in insulated bottles is so problematic.
Why don’t other bottle brands use lead free solder like Ohelo?
Here at Ohelo, sustainability is at the core of everything we do. This is why we choose to use safer materials, like lead-free solder, to make our insulated steel bottles and travel mugs from. So why don’t other brands follow our example and choose to use lead free solder to make their vacuum flasks?
• It costs more. The solder alone is significantly more expensive than the traditional lead based solder. Then you need to use a dedicated vacuum oven to avoid any cross contamination from bottles using the traditional lead solder. As lead free solder has a higher melting temperature than lead based solder, it needs to be baked for longer at a higher temperature. All of these factors add to the cost of using a lead-free alternative. What’s more, there are only a small handful of manufacturers that are actually capable of offering lead free solder as an option.
• Lack of awareness. Many brands seem to be completely unaware of the presence of lead in their bottles. So many brands, including some of the bigger names, simply buy off-rack from a factory and pop their name on the product. As they have had no input into the design and creation of their products, other than maybe paint colours and a logo, they have not looked into what materials are used to make the bottles themselves. Even brands that have designed their own products can remain unaware if they did not visit their manufacturer in person and ask questions about all the stages that go into making their insulated bottles. This has at least been the excuse of a couple of brands that have issued product recalls recently, that they did not know this toxic material was used. This excuse is simply not good enough in our opinion.
• Herd mentality / head in sand mentality. This is the thought that “well everyone else is using this so it must be safe. If everyone else is using it, then why should I choose a more expensive option? If customers do not know about this being used to make insulated bottles, then why should I use anything else? To us this is just as bad
How can I test my own water bottle to see if there is lead in?
It is possible to lead test your insulated water bottles. It is not the easiest thing to do as generally the solder points are covered with more than paint. You need to expose the solder point of your insulated bottle. This looks like a glassy grey gel. This may involve simply scraping off paint from the base of your bottle, removing a base plate or soft touch base, or fully removing a fake bottle base to get to it. You can buy lead testing kits readily online. Follow the instructions on the packet to test the solder point.
You can see how this testing went for us when we tested some well known brands in the UK for the presence of lead solder – unsurprisingly every other brand that we have tested has so far contained lead. Only the Ohelo bottles have tested as lead free.
Lead does not belong in water bottles.
Like petrol, electronics, paint and many more products, toxic materials containing lead should be banned in insulated water bottles, to protect both people and planet. Sadly, as this is still industry standard, with almost all insulated steel bottle brands still using lead solder, it will likely take legislation to force a change in this practice.
In the meantime, if you are looking for a lead-free insulated steel bottle or travel cup to keep you and your family hydrated, then look no further. Say Ohelo to our family owned brand, and discover our lead free insulated water bottles and lead free travel cups. Better for you, our makers and the planet! Together we can make a difference!
1. Did you know that most insulated bottles still contain LEAD!
2. The Ultimate Guide to Water Bottles: Our A-Z on reusable water bottles
3. The best reusable water bottle material – why we use stainless steel
4. Is your coffee cup recyclable?