Toxic PFAS Chemicals Detected in Popular Shoes

Wolverine Worldwide—maker of shoe brands like Hush Puppies and Keds—continues to add PFAS to shoes

 

ANN ARBOR, Mich.—Scientists at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana University and Ecology Center have discovered that Wolverine Worldwide—maker of shoe brands like Hush Puppies and Keds—continues to add per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) to some adults’ and children’s shoes despite knowing the dangers. 

See complete test report

Wolverine has been plagued by controversy since PFAS-containing waste from its old Rockford, Michigan tannery was found to have badly contaminated the local community’s water supply. Wolverine is facing hundreds of lawsuits from harmed residents, and the company is, in turn, suing 3M for selling it the toxic PFAS chemicals without warning of the hazards. The company is spending millions of dollars on remediation and providing bottled water and whole-house water filters to affected families.

“You’d think a shoe company embroiled in lawsuits and a public-relations nightmare around PFAS would be the first to quit using it,” said Jeff Gearhart, research director at the Michigan-based Ecology Center who helped coordinate the testing. “Our results underscore how continued widespread use of PFAS in consumer products means these toxics are often right under our feet—literally.”

The team’s testing indicated the presence of PFAS in four out of the six shoes tested, including Keds Women's Camp Water-Resistant Boot with Thinsulate™, Hush Puppies Men’s Venture shoes, Hush Puppies Men’s Rainmaker shoes, and Merrell Big Kid’s Jungle Moc Frosty Waterproof shoes. In addition, very high levels were detected in Hush Puppies Weather Protector shoe spray.

  • The Hush Puppies Weather Protector Spray, which is labeled "made in USA," contained C6 varieties of PFAS (short-chain), including 6:2 fluorotelomer alcohols and 6:2 fluorotelomer acrylates.
  • The four shoes in which PFAS was detected, which are labeled “made in China,” contained C8 and C10 varieties of PFAS (long chain), including 8:2 fluorotelomer alcohols and 10:2 fluorotelomer alcohols.  These long-chain PFAS chemicals have been largely phased out by U.S. manufacturers.  Yet the new results show U.S. companies continue to use long-chain PFAS in imported products sold to U.S. consumers.
  • The actual amount PFAS found on each shoe varied (between 33 ppb and 4200 ppb) depending on the type of shoe and the location tested, suggesting suggests the application of the PFAS is uneven.

Some PFAS chemicals have been linked to kidney and testicular cancer, elevated cholesterol, reduced fertility, thyroid problems, asthma, low birth weight, obesity, asthma, and damage to brain development. Some have been associated with a decreased immune response to vaccines in children.

Despite health concerns, PFAS are still widely used in clothing and shoes, cookware, cosmetics, food packaging, and more. People can be exposed to PFAS from these products, as well as from contaminated food, drinking water, air, or dust. Nearly every American, including newborn babies, has PFAS chemicals in their blood.

This PFAS use continues to be unregulated by EPA. Today, NPR affiliate WEMU (Ypsilanti, Michigan) confirmed that EPA is not restricting or monitoring the import of these PFAS containing articles.  An EPA spokesperson confirmed to WEMU that “...at this time there is no restriction on importing shoe leather containing long-chain PFAS” and “EPA does not collect data on companies importing PFAS-treated shoe leather.”  More information is available in the latest segment of the 5-part “Green Room” radio series on PFAS.

Today’s results are the first confirmation that Wolverine continues to use PFAS chemicals despite the controversy and litigation related to the company’s contamination of communities near Grand Rapids, Michigan. This is surprising given the company’s assurances that it is “working proactively to develop solutions.”

This discovery comes just days since the premiere of Dark Waters, a legal thriller starring Mark Ruffalo that shows how DuPont’s production and disposal of PFAS devastated a West Virginia community.

Published on November 26, 2019