How is Phenol Used in Basketball Shoes?

Various substances can be found in basketball shoes. These substances are what make up most of the synthetic materials used for those shoes, and while most substances are not harmful to our body, there are a few that could be dangerous when we are exposed to ample amounts of them. One of these harmful substances is phenol, an aromatic organic compound that can cause chemical burns if not handled correctly. So, why is phenol found in basketball shoes? Let us found as we get more details about phenol and its uses.

What is Phenol?

Phenol is a substance that was first extracted from coal tar, a thick dark liquid that serves as a by-product of coal gas and coke (a hard and porous fuel with high carbon content) from coal. However, scientists have already found an alternative to producing phenol through petroleum-derived feedstocks.

Phenol is primarily used as an industrial commodity because it is a precursor to many substances, compounds, and materials. Its most popular use is for the synthesis of plastics, which are synthetic materials that are used for a variety of products, including the components of basketball shoes.

man playing basketball

Uses of Phenol

Besides producing plastics, there are also other important uses for phenol. One of these uses is for it to serve as an antiseptic, a substance or compound that reduces inflammation and infection on living tissue. The use of phenol as an antiseptic was pioneered by Joseph Lister, a British surgeon and medical scientist in the 1800s.

Phenol was also used in the production of carbolic soap, an antiseptic soap, from the early 1900s up to the 1970s, and the substance was also produced in liquid form as a treatment for ingrown fingernails and toenails called chemical matrixectomy.

The substance is also widely used as a topical anesthetic for otology procedures. Because of its anesthetic properties, phenol is sometimes used as an alternative for general anesthesia and other local anesthetics. 

For uses that are not medical-related, phenol is used as a component for industrial paint strippers, which is utilized in the aviation industry to remove chemically resistant coatings like polyurethane and epoxy. Phenol is also utilized as an ingredient for various cosmetic products like hair colorings, sunscreens, and skin lightening lotions or creams. 

However, due to the harmful effects of phenol on the skin, the substance is banned for use on cosmetics products in the European Union (EU) and Canada. Despite the dangerous effects of phenol, many companies still use the substance because of its inexpensiveness compared to other substances available on the market.

How was Phenol Discovered?

Phenol was discovered by German analytical chemist Friedlieb Ferdinand Runge in 1834 after extracting it from coal tar, although what he extracted was the impure form of phenol. After the discovery, Runge called phenol “Karbolsäure,” meaning “coal-oil-acid, carbolic acid” in English. Phenol was only extracted from coal tar until the development of the petrochemical industry in the 1800s. 

It was August Laurent, a French chemist, who would eventually obtain the pure form of phenol in 1841. However, Laurent was already working on extracting phenol in pure form since 1836, which is also the year that he called phenol “phène” for benzene. Then, in 1843, another French chemist named Charles Gerhardt would coin the official name of the substance, phenol.

Joseph Lister, a British surgeon and medical scientist, discovered the antiseptic properties of phenol and utilized it for antiseptic surgery. However, we also found a side-effect to using phenol, as the substance would cause skin irritation after prolonged exposure. So, through the discovery of phenol as an antiseptic, scientists have also started to find aseptic or germ-free techniques for surgery.

In addition to causing skin irritation, continued exposure of several organs of the body to phenol, particularly those that are a part of the central nervous system, can cause a sudden collapse and loss of consciousness. These symptoms would then be utilized by Nazi Germany during the Second World War as a way to execute prisoners and criminals. According to studies, one gram of phenol injected into the central nervous system is enough to cause death.

Phenol was also one of the main substances found in the Carbolic Smoke Ball, a device that was supposed to serve as a protection against influenza and other diseases. However, people soon found out that the product was ineffective, and this led to the creation of a controversial law case in the 1890s called Carlill v Carbolic Smoke Ball Co.

Phenol in Basketball Shoes

pair of Jordan 1s

Because phenol is such a dangerous substance if there is an abundance of it on a product or item, many organizations have actively stopped various companies from using it. However, because of how phenol is important for making plastics, like the midsole, outsole, and other parts of a basketball shoe, some companies couldn’t really take out phenol from the substances in the materials they use, although the amount of phenol on these materials is only minuscule.

However, phenol is still quite common in many everyday items that we use and wear today. According to a study in 2011, phenol is found in several products sold by numerous sporting and fashion brands, including one unknown brand of footwear. In the study, the presence of phenol in these products reached above the detection limit of 1 mg/kg, and this amount of phenol can often be harmful to the skin and various organs of the body.

Because of this 2011 report, many brands, including the ones that are included in the study, have pledged that they will reduce the amount of phenol that they use for the materials of their fashion pieces and shoes. So, in the 2020s, we should expect that phenol should not have much presence in the chemical composition of the materials utilized to make basketball shoes.

Those are details about phenol and its various uses. As evident in this article, phenol can be a harmful substance for humans when they are abundant in a product or in the environment. So it is important for you to know if the products and the shoes you buy contain phenol in order for you to remain safe against the side effects of the substance.