High levels of environmental toxins in plastic shoes

16 September 2009 - In a ground breaking study, the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation [1] with its global partners [2], including groundWork [3], Friends of the Earth, South Africa undertook a study into plastic shoes, produced and sold all over the world.

Analyses of several different types of chemical with properties that are harmful to health and the environment were carried out on 27 pairs of shoes, manufactured in various countries. The results show that 17 of the shoes contained one or more phthalates, which are used as softeners in PVC plastic. Phthalates are associated with serious health risks [4]. Animal experiments have shown that some phthalates can result in harm to a foetus or change its gender, as well as causing reduced fertility, damage to enzyme systems and cellular damage.

Some of the shoes contained very high levels of phthalates – of particular concern in South African purchased shoes were elevated levels of the phthalate DEHP (diethyl-hexyl phthalate). In one shoe tested that was purchased from Woolworths (imported from Brazil) the concentration of DEHP was the highest found of all the shoes tested and 23% of the total weight of the shoe tested.

In total four pairs of shoes were purchased in South Africa from the following manufacturers: The Hub, Woolworths, PEP Stores and Selfast Da Fashion Fibre Zone . These shoes were shipped to Sweden where they were tested according to the most EU standards.

Additionally the Selfast children’s shoe (manufactured in South Africa) tested positive for the toxic metals arsenic, cadmium, chromium, mercury and lead. Of particular concern is the fact that the mercury and lead levels were the highest globally among all the shoes tested. These heavy metals are known to be toxic, especially to children. Lead affects the nervous system and can result in impaired intelligence. Lead compounds are officially classified as being able to harm the unborn child.

Rico Euripidou (of groundWork) says “this study clearly demonstrates that in South Africa and globally too few controls exist to protect the consumer from potentially toxic substances. More alarmingly these shoes are affordable to all South Africans. It is critical that the South African government and retail outlets take an urgent look at chemicals in everyday consumer products and start a process of evaluation and monitoring towards phase out of toxics in everyday consumer goods that are often discarded over short horizons – these also invariably pollute the natural environment”.

Recommendations are on page 30 of the report. Read the report.

For more information:

Rico Euripidou, groundWork 083 5193008


[1] The Swedish Society for Nature Conservation is a non-profit environmental organisation with the power to bring about change. We spread knowledge, chart threats to the environment and create solutions, as well as lobby politicians and agencies at both national and international levels. www.naturskyddsforeningen.se

Tel. +46 (0)8-702 65 00, Address: Box 4625, SE-116 91 Stockholm, Sweden Street address: Åsögatan 115, Stockholm, Sweden

[2] The investigation has been carried out in collaboration with environmental organisations in the Philippines, India, South Africa, Uganda, Tanzania and Indonesia, and indicates that the risks of being exposed to substances that are harmful to the health and the environment, from a common consumer product like shoes, are the same regardless of where the consumer lives.

[3] groundWork is a environmental justice organisation working with community people from around South Africa and increasingly in Southern Africa on environmental justice and human rights issues focusing on Air Pollution, Waste (including Health Care Waste) and Environmental Health. groundWork is a member of Friends of the Earth International.

[4] Phthalates are a group of chemicals that are primarily used as softeners in polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic. The phthalate DEHP is classified as toxic to reproduction and can harm the unborn child. People are exposed to phthalates from the foetal stage and throughout the rest of our lives, via the food we eat, the air we breathe and through direct skin contact.