Virginia authorities are calling it "the case of the noxious shoes."
At last count, the shoes had claimed eight victims -- seven cargo handlers and one dog -- all sickened or burned by an unknown substance seeping from boxes of imported shoes at Dulles International Airport.
The first instance occurred Monday night when three workers at a cargo depot were taken ill as they moved hundreds of mysteriously wet cartons of Brazilian shoes taken from the hold of a Northwest Orient Airlines 747. The workers complained of nausea, eye irritations, dizziness, and skin rashes.
They weren't alone. A customs dog, trained to seek out contraband, became ill after it sniffed the cartons.
Then more shoes arrived at Dulles Wednesday night and more workers became ill. But this time the shoes came from Spain and the workers had to be treated at an area hospital.
In both cases the culprits were "noxious shoes' said C. W. Ramsey, an official of the Virginia department of emergency and energy services, who dispatched inspectors to the Northern Virginia airport.
"Right now we're kind of dancing in the dark until we know what the chemical is that is doing the damage," Ramsay said yesterday. But officials suspect that the workers were injured by Formalin, formaldehyde, or nitrobenzine, chemicals used in tanning leathers.
Ramsey said he suspects that the chemicals crystallized on the shoes as they were carried into the U.S. in the unpressurized cargo holds of jets flying in the chill upper atmosphere. When the planes landed, the chemicals thawed, turning the cartons into a soggy, stinking mess he said.
The problem, Ramsey said, isn't serious enough to require banning "importation of all shoes . . . The general public is not in danger at this point.'