Are plastic sandals leaching chemicals into my feet?

When you're addicted to the planet


Q: Are plastic sandals leaching chemicals into my feet?

A: If I had to have just one pair of shoes for the rest of my life, I’d pick flip-flops. Of course, that would necessitate a change in fall/winter/spring address and inevitable podiatrist visits, but a girl has a right to unworkable fantasies.

And I don’t think I’m alone in finding the ultimate symbol of summer liberation not in a far-flung cottage or polluting jet skis, but in simple slip-on sandals. Too bad your feet are probably yelling back, particularly if you’re wearing plastic.

It seems plastic sandals and rubber clogs may not be as benign as they seem. A 2009 report by the Danish Environmental Protection Agency found wearing them with bare feet is definitely a bad idea. The study, which looked at exposure of two-year-olds to chemical substances in all sorts of consumer products, discovered four types of phthalates in a variety of children’s rubber/plastic footwear (DBP, DIBP, DEHP and BBP).

The report concludes: exposures to “a high content of an endocrine-disruptor, such as that of DBP in rubber clogs, may result in a critical risk for the two-year-old.”

A follow-up investigation released in 2010 tested 60 kids’ and adults’ sandals/clogs made of plastic and “foam” (i.e. vulcanized rubber or “cross-linked” plastic). Without naming brands, it reports that most of the sandals contained one or more phthalates, and in particular “the majority” of plastic straps and soles in kids shoes contained anywhere from 10 to 46 per cent phthalates. On the bright side, it notes that kids’ shoes seemed to have fewer of them than adult shoes.

Still, the overall conclusion is disturbing: phthalates leaching from such sandals are a “significant” source of reproductive toxins for consumers wearing them barefoot. And by the way, the leaching increases if you’ve got sunscreen or lotion on your feet.

The feds here in Canada are restricting the DEHP, DBP and four other phthalates in kids’ toys and some childcare items, but shoes, unfortunately, aren’t affected by the ban. Health Canada’s perspective on phthalates is that they’re mostly a concern if they’re being sucked on by young children. Clearly, Denmark disagrees. In May, the Danish enviro minister announced plans to ban several phthalates from all items that come in direct contact with all consumers or are just plain destined for indoor use (e.g. vinyl flooring).

Best to stay one step ahead and stick to sandals that aren’t made of softened mystery plastics. Crocs won’t tell us what their shoes are made of, just that they’re a “cross-link closed-cell resin.” But customer service reps did tell me they’re free of plasticizers such as phthalates, as well as flame retardants. Keen, Teva and iPlay kids’ sandals tell you the parts in contact with bare feet are made of what is widely assumed is safer EVA (also used in baby pacificers).

I say “assume” because while the Danish government tested sandals made of EVA and other materials, it never revealed the types of plastic responsible for the leaching. Just that most of the 60 sandals did so. The only plastic sandals recognized to contain high levels of phthalates were made of PVC/vinyl.

To avoid the whole petro/plastic scene altogether, look for sandals with fabric, cork or (if you’re not vegan) leather insoles/footbeds. Keep in mind that fake leather is often made of vinyl. You’ll be totally safe with basic Birks or hemp sandals from rawganique.com, but what if you’re looking for something funkier? My funky faves are El Naturalista sandals made of veggie-dyed leather and natural or recycled latex soles (elnaturalista.ca). Think! is the German-made equivalent, with natural tannins from ground bark extracts of plantation trees and mostly cork/natural latex footbeds (carried by Walking on a Cloud stores).

For a chunky, cool Canadian-designed shoe, check out Ontario-based Groundhogs. These guys use semi-vegetable-tanned leathers, natural latex, recycled rubber and cork soles with coconut and tree resin buttons and buckles (groundhogshoes.com), all with bamboo or leather insoles.

Men’s and women’s sandals from Timberland’s Earthkeepers have either leather or EVA insoles with partly recycled rubber outer soles and, depending on the shoe, organic cotton, recycled PET or leather from “environmentally responsible” tanneries (timberland.com). Simple Shoes sometimes has basic flip-flop-style sandals with recycled/natural latex outer soles, all with biodegradable EVA topsoles (simpleshoes.com).

Choose one of the above and you should be cruising through summer with happy feet.

Got a question?

Send your green queries to ecoholic@nowtoronto.com

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