Poison From Shoe Dye – Its Cause And Effect

Shoe dye poisoning may be a mystery as to the cause when it occurs, but it leaves no doubt that something has happened. It nearly scares the victim and every one who sees him to death.

Including the doctor. I have described it before and I recently had a letter from a physician of wide experience who said that on reading an account of such a case which I had written, the mystery of a case which had puzzled him for months was solved.

The victim of shoe dye poisoning turns blue—a dirty, sickly looking blue, that certainly is alarming. The queer thing is that he feels no bad effects, and when some member of the household sees him and screams, “What is the matter?” he answers, “Nothing—what are you talking about?” Then he is told to go look at himself in the mirror and when he does, he really gets sick, sure enough.

Because what he sees looks more like a corpse than a living man. His complexion is like that which is seen under a mercury vapor lamp used in small photographic galleries.

Fortunately, the experience never has any serious consequences and everyone can afford to joke about it afterwards.

The cause is the blue-black dye used to turn tan shoes into black shoes. If the shoes are worn too soon after the process the heat of the foot volatilizes the dye and it is absorbed into the blood through the skin of the foot. In the blood it does not cause any damage to the blood cells, nor indeed any damage to anything. That is why the victim feels perfectly all right. But the blue color tinges the skin and gives the ghastly appearance of impending death to the countenance.

The experience has even been reported in babies. In one case the baby inherited a pair of shoes from an older brother. They were a little scruffed so the mother thought she would freshen them up by dyeing them black. She did and put them on the baby’s feet before the dye was dry. The poor baby began to turn blue and the mother thought it was dying. The shoes were taken off and in a few hours the baby’s color was normal.

The blue color disappears in all cases in about three days. But if the shoes are put back on it often returns, and the result is a series of going to bed and getting better, and getting up and putting the shoes on and getting worse, and going back to bed, for the poor patient. If the dyed shoes are not worn for a week or two after the dyeing process, nothing of this sort occurs.


A young man of my acquaintance, aged 14, had a very strenuous Saturday afternoon playing, and when he got home his mother became alarmed because he looked sick. Various causes were assigned to the illness by members of the family—one was eating an ice cream soda in the middle of the afternoon, one was practicing too much on the saxophone, and one was just plain constipation. By the time the doctor arrived the lad had assumed an alarming appearance; his skin was blue and ashy in color, and yet he said that he felt all right.

The doctor, having had some experience in cases of that kind, asked whether or not he had had his shoes dyed recently, and it was found that not only he had, but that he had been wearing them all of his strenuous afternoon.

This condition of shoe dye poisoning is fairly common, and certainly causes great alarm. It occurs from the dyeing of tan shoes black with a substance known as nitrobenzene or anilin. If the shoes are worn too soon after the dye is applied, that is, before it has dried, in the course of exercise or excitement of any kind, the feet may become heated and volatilize the dye, which is then absorbed into the blood stream.

There is some discussion as to whether the blueness of the skin which results is caused by a change in the hemoglobin of the blood or not. The more likely explanation is that the dye itself discolors the blood serum, and this is the cause of the blue appearance of the skin.

The fact that patients are usually not very sick and recover rapidly, would support the latter explanation. The young man mentioned above was perfectly all right the next day, and his skin was of natural color.

Curiously enough, the condition is particularly likely to occur in children and infants, and they are very susceptible to this form of poisoning. One case in the literature is that of an infant eight months old. I have been unable to find any cases of death from this method of poisoning and, in fact, the patients are seldom very sick, but at the same time the use of these dyes for shoes should be prohibited. At least, it is well to remember that if tan shoes are dyed black they should be allowed to dry for a week or ten days afterwards, until the volatile portions of the poison have been carried off.