Are Crocs a Health Risk?

Personal Health
Editor's note: In response to safety concerns, Crocs (CROX) announced Monday that it will be introducing two new lines of shoes intended to offer feet more protection.

Adored for their comfort by doctors and nurses, charged by the fashion police with crimes against style, and flaunted by Presidents and pop stars eager to capitalise on their quirky cachet -- not since Birkenstocks burst on to the high street in the 1960s has a sandal captured the imagination quite like Crocs.

But could recent claims that the brightly coloured, perforated clogs pose a health risk threaten the ubiquity of the shoes, which have marched in their millions out of shoe shops from Hollywood to Hampstead since their launch five years ago?

"Crocs can kill," screamed the front page of The Sun last Wednesday. The paper reported the banning of the shoes by some Sheffield hospitals, apparently because of claims that static electricity generated by Croc-shod medical staff could knock out vital equipment.

Elsewhere, Crocs have been blamed for children's feet being mangled by escalators, for causing wearers to slip and fall when the shoes get wet, for spreading infection in hospitals, and for providing insufficient foot support.

The US-based manufacturers, Crocs Inc, says that the shoes are being targeted unfairly. "We are so popular now and get a lot of attention, so it's kind of logical that these kind of claims are made," said Liselore Stuut, a Crocs spokesperson. "But these things happen with all shoes, not only Crocs."

That has not stopped the increasingly vocal anti-Croc brigade singling out the luminous lumps of moulded foam resin. A dedicated Crocs Accidents blog includes newspaper clippings with gory pictures of mangled feet. In November 2006, a Singapore newspaper reported the case of two-year-old Shiyr Chong, whose big toe was ripped off after her Croc became trapped at the end of an escalator.

An increasingly busy Crocs PR team responded to Shiyr's plight, as well as to reports of at least five other similar accidents, by highlighting the importance of escalator maintenance, saying that other rubber shoes or flip-flops pose a similar threat.

What about the claims that Crocs can, according to a spokesman at a Swedish hospital that banned the shoes last April, produce "a cloud of lightning" due to a build-up of static electricity? The theory goes that, like the spark of electricity that can jump from a person to a car on a hot day, medical staff walking around hospitals in Crocs can discharge static into medical equipment, causing it to malfunction.

Mike O'Neill, a foot surgeon and spokesperson for the Society of Chiropodists and Podiatrists, says that wearing appropriate shoes in surgery is important, and not just to prevent the build-up of static. "You get a lot of spillage in theatre," he says. "Orthopaedic surgeons wear Wellington boots. So do many gynaecologists -- the last thing you want is to have a pregnant woman saying, 'My water's broken,' and you tell her 'Yes, I know, it's just gone through the holes in my Crocs'."

The company promises to look more closely at the "static" claims. But it insists that there is no evidence to suggest that the shoes behave differently to any other rubber-soled footwear. It has even commissioned a report that says that Crocs pose a lower risk of static build-up than other shoes.

Indeed, a spokesman for Sheffield Teaching Hospitals said that the trust had banned Crocs not in response to the alleged static risk (there are no reported incidents of Crocs disrupting medical equipment in the UK) but because the shoes contravened dress code.

If other NHS trusts follow suit, thousands of medical staff who have come to swear by Crocs for their comfort will surely protest. The shoes' feather-light, anti-microbial footbeds have made them a hit in hospitals, especially with nurses, who can cover up to five miles in a shift. But are Crocs good for the feet?

"They have shortcomings," says O'Neill. "They're disastrous if they're the only shoe somebody standing for a long period is going to wear. You really need something that is measured for the foot. The problem is Crocs do not provide enough support -- they rely on the foot sliding forward as far as it will go."

O'Neill says that Crocs are better suited to holiday wear. "They're brilliant on the beach or round the pool, mainly as a much better alternative to flip-flops, which are terrible for feet. They have no heels, which causes the foot to roll inwards, potentially causing serious ligament and tendon damage. Crocs at least have a slight heel and a strap to keep them on the foot."

Whether or not there is any validity to the claims against them, Crocs show no sign of losing popularity. Started in 2002 by a pair of American sailors looking for the ideal deck shoe, Crocs has sold more than 20 million pairs of shoes in the past 12 months -- and Croc haters will dread the arrival this winter of Croc Mammoths, a fur-lined shoe that looks set to keep clogs on the high street all year round.

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