Several years ago, when picking up my preteen daughter from her friend’s house, I was invited into the living room to say hello to the girl’s mother. The family had immigrated to the US from Korea a few years before, and the mother looked at my feet in silent consternation. Although she politely refrained from mentioning it, I followed her gaze to the shoes on my feet and realized I’d made a mistake. I’d noticed the family’s shoes lined up on a rug near the door, but had thought little about them. I was only there for a moment, and didn’t take the time to take off my shoes.
I was unaccustomed to taking off my shoes indoors. And, until that moment, it didn’t occur to me that I was being rude as a visitor in their home. For years afterward, I thought it simply a reflection of their culture that the family chose not to wear shoes inside. Now, I finally understand that there’s also a health reason for going shoeless.
Of course, none of us want mud and dirt tracked into our homes. It’s messy and requires clean up. For a long time, that’s the only consequence I considered. Then, when reading a blog post by Laura Dern at Healthy Child Healthy World this past April, I learned that “dirt” is only part the story.
I thought about this topic again on Saturday, after helping family members renovate a rental house that had been trashed by their tenants. The filth the renters left behind was incredible, and we were all forced to walk in it as we tried to clean the mess and repair the damage. When Joe and I got home, weary and grimy, I trudged up to the bathroom to take a shower. As I was undressing, I realized that I had tracked through the house wearing athletic shoes contaminated with all sorts of disgusting things on the soles. I’d forgotten to take them off at the door. The thought nearly made me ill.
Where Have Your Shoes Been?
Even if you haven’t been cleaning up after irresponsible renters, when you or your visitors walk inside your home wearing outdoor shoes, you may track in a host of unhealthy substances without even knowing it:
- Herbicides and pesticides from neighboring lawns
- Antifreeze, tire rubber, hydrocarbons, and even lead from nearby streets
- Lead dust and asbestos particles (from remodeling), concrete dust and drywall dust from construction sites
- Animal (and sometimes human) urine, feces, and dander, and dead bugs from sidewalks, lawns, and alleys
- Overflowed-toilet water and urine from public restrooms
- Gasoline, antifreeze, motor oil, and spilled beverages from gas stations
These are just the examples that come readily to mind as I write this post. But there are so many more unhealthy chemicals and unsavory substances that cling to the bottoms of our shoes, depending on where we trod.
Wipe Your Shoes
Fortunately, the solution is simple: If you do nothing else, buy a good-quality doormat and wipe your shoes. According to CleanLink, “ISSA [the foremost cleaning industry trade association] estimates that roughly 80 percent of all the soil, dust and contaminants found within a facility are tracked in on the shoes of staff and building occupants. The use of entry mats can reduce this percentage and help lower housekeeping costs.” Although the ISSA statement is about businesses, it’s not much of a leap to apply the same rule of thumb to our homes.
CleanLink goes on to say, “Experts comment that the cost of removing a pound of dirt can exceed roughly $500. The average-sized building with comparable people will track in on their shoes over a pound of dirt a week in just one entryway. If there are five entryways, that is five pounds of dirt or $2,500 in cleaning costs, a significant savings if matting is implemented.”
It’s the rare home that gets as much foot traffic as an “average-sized building.” But if you have carpeting at home, dirty shoes will cost you in cleaning bills, too — though far less, because your traffic is substantially less.
While you may not lounge on your carpet, if you have kids — from babies to teens — the carpeting in your home likely comes into contact with your children’s skin and is in close contact with their respiratory systems on a daily or weekly basis. Eliminating 80 percent of the dirt and contaminants can make a huge difference in your family’s exposure to toxins, many of which you can’t even see.
Take ‘Em Off
Better yet, after wiping your shoes, take them off and leave them on a rug or mat by the door. If bare feet are not to your liking, put on socks or slippers. As long as you aren’t tracking in outside dirt, your floors should be clean enough for naked feet — and crawling kids.
But what about guests? Do you ask them to bare their tootsies (or the holes in their socks)? That’s up to you, of course, but I find that most people offer to take off their shoes when they see the host or hostess doing so. If someone refuses, it’s not the end of the world — and needn’t be the end of your friendship. (You never know why they don’t want to show their feet. Maybe they’ve got an ugly mole or bunions or some disfigurement they’re embarrassed of.) It is fair, however, to ask that they wipe their feet carefully. If you have kids, you might even gently mention that you remove your shoes to protect your children. Most folks with a heart will respect that.
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