For those of us in the northern hemisphere winter is here and the ubiquitous flip-flops and clogs have been replaced by boots and socks. I imagine there must be billions of flip-flops of all sizes, styles and colours scattered around the globe. It is also doubtful that any of us imagine that, by wearing them, we are in damaging the environment and endangering our health. A recent investigation into plastics used in manufacturing flip-flops and other plastic shoes reported huge concentrations of harmful chemicals. Imagine what this does to the factory workers who have to produce these shoes. The longer you wear the shoes, the more danger they pose. I remember once having a pair for about five years and feeling a real sense of loss when I misplaced them a couple of years ago.
Many different types of chemical that can cause health and environmental problems are used in the manufacture of plastic shoes, reports Swedish environmental organization Naturskyddsföreningen. These chemicals can cause harm to the workers who handle the chemicals or the shoes; they can also harm the environment as the shoes wear out and when they are discarded.
The chemicals can also cause health problems for the people who wear the shoes. However, a person who buys a pair of shoes seldom knows which chemicals they contain or where the shoes were made.
Shoes from six countries were tested in the report - Philippines, India, South Africa, Uganda, Tanzania and Indonesia - with those manufactured in South Africa having the highest levels of toxins. These contained a chemical which is particularly harmful to our reproductive systems. The report issues a set of recommendations, including that consumers demand to know what is in the plastic shoes, and that if manufacturer refuses, you should refuse to buy them. Consumers should also avoid PVC products. Great advice - IF you are buying top-end plastic shoes from a designer, but not much help if you buy them from the local pound shop or market stall and even less help if you are buying them somewhere in the Global South. Can anyone really imagine asking a market trader for such information on plastic shoes?
Thinking about the shoes, I decided to find out what other every-day, seemingly harmless, products are invading our lives and particularly the lives of low-income people and those living in the Global South. The list is endless. From foods to food additives, cleaning products, beauty products, bottled water, deodorant, and sweeteners... and on and on. Of course, if you live in the West and are rich enough, you can avoid them all by buying expensive organic products and food, but most of us are not in this position. One of the worst dangers comes from Deet insect repellent, which is mostly used for mosquitos, and which is thought to cause brain damage. Since malaria-carrying mosquitos are mostly found in equatorial regions it is likely that people living in those regions are the ones most frequently using products containing Deet.
The point about all these dangerous products is that there doesn't appear to be any global regulation so, though one country might ban imports, countries where regulation is minimal or borders are highly porous are prime areas for dumping toxic substances disguised as every-day consumer items.
One of the worst toxic scandals was the recent baby milk formula produced in China which was said to contain 'melamine', a highly toxic poison. In South Africa, Nestlé was ordered to withdraw its formula from supermarket shelves when it was discovered to contain high levels of melamine. But what of the millions of other women in countries across the continent, as well as those in Asia, buying contaminated formula - no-one knows the numbers of deaths and permanently damaged children in these regions. It is not unusual to find outdated - sometimes by as much as a year - food products and drugs in markets in countries like Nigeria. Although it is the responsibility of the national government to ensure imports are legal, those selling the products should also be made accountable. Millions could be dying, and know one knows what it is they are dying of - plastic shoes, baby milk, toxic waste dumped illegally - the list goes on.