Ten Miles Square

Blog

October 31, 2012 8:20 AM The Myth About Strangers Poisoning Kids’ Halloween Candy

By Aaron Carroll

I think I’ll likely just post this every Halloween:

As October draws to a close and children begin to pick their Halloween costumes and anticipate candy feasts, a barrage of child safety warnings begins. Among the most frightening for parents and children are the warnings to check candy carefully because of the risk of razor blades, poison, or similar frightening substances hidden within the candy. Who wouldn’t be paralyzed by worry that poison or a dangerous object has been placed in the candy and then randomly handed out to children by strangers? Parents carefully check each item of candy for any marks or tears in the packaging. Some families abandon neighborhood trick-or-treating all together and head to the mall. How afraid do we need to be about Halloween candy? Could this parental nightmare be a figment of our collective imagination?

Why did we become so afraid of tampered Halloween candy in the first place? News reports of Halloween candy tampering have been popping up since 1950. In one story from 1964, a woman named Helen Pfeil was arrested for what she had considered an obvious joke - giving packages containing dog biscuits, steel wool pads, and ant poison buttons (labelled with the word “poison”) to teenagers who she considered too old to be trick-or-treating. Since she meant no malice, she made sure to also tell the teenagers about her “joke,” and therefore no one got hurt. Even so, she was charged and sentenced for “endangering children.” While she hardly sounds like a sinister stranger just waiting to give an unsuspecting child a poisoned treat, the case was used as an example of the dangers of Halloween candy in the media.

Amazingly, despite the widespread fear of Halloween poisonings, no evidence of a genuine Halloween poisoning can be located. A professor of sociology and criminal justice at the University of Delaware, Dr. Joel Best, has tried to debunk this myth repeatedly. After scanning major newspapers between 1958 and 1993 for stories about Halloween candy tampering, Dr. Best found nearly 100 stories that he followed up with phone calls to police and hospitals. Of those stories, Dr. Best found absolutely none that could be positively attributed to random Halloween violence. The majority were the result of pranks. The reported incidents usually involved the discovery of contaminated treats, but with no actual injury to the children. When these cases were followed up, even the contamination usually turned out to be a hoax - often one initiated by the children themselves.

In 1975, Newsweek magazine claimed that several children had died from Halloween candy-tampering in recent years. Surprisingly, this claim was not based on any actual events. In the only two documented cases of child deaths associated with Halloween candy, strangers were not to blame. Members of the child’s immediate family were intentionally or unintentionally responsible for the poisonings, and those responsible placed blame on random Halloween poisonings. In a case from Detroit, Michigan in 1970, 5-year-old Kevin Toston died four days into a coma that was later found to be caused by an overdose of heroin. Subsequently, heroin was found in his Halloween candy. A thorough investigation revealed that the heroin had not come from a stranger - it had come from his uncle’s obviously poorly hidden stash of heroin. When his family realized that they might be found guilty of neglect, they put some of the heroin in his candy in the hopes of covering up their part in his death. In 1974, 8-year-old Timothy Mark O’Bryan died as a result of consuming Pixie Stix® poisoned with cyanide after Halloween, a crime for which his father was subsequently convicted and executed. His father made use of the myth of Halloween poisonings to cover up his own actions. While these deaths are undeniably tragic, the real danger to the children involved came from their own homes, not faceless strangers.

A 1990 case involved Ariel Katz, a 7-year-old girl who died while trick-or-treating, but her death was subsequently found to be due to congenital heart failure. In 2001, a 4-year-old in Vancouver died the day after trick-or-treating (resulting in police alerts to dispose of all Halloween candy), but the autopsy revealed that she died from an overwhelming bacterial infection (her candy wasn’t contaminated). Although both the website www.snopes.com and Dr. Best’s research have detailed these and other cases, and neither their searches nor ours revealed any evidence of actual random Halloween poisonings, this myth still persists. Tainted cupcakes will be blamed for adolescent abdominal pain, only to have the teenager later admit that he overdosed on prescription medications (this has actually happened). Reviews of the medical literature also fail to turn up evidence of random acts of Halloween violence. We cannot definitively prove that no child has ever been killed by a stranger poisoning their Halloween candy, but we can state that no such event has been documented in the media to the best of our knowledge.

Of note, children do face some real health risks on Halloween, but the risks come from cars, not candy. The National Safety Council reports that children are at an increased risk of injury as pedestrians, being four times more likely to be killed by a car while walking around on Halloween than on any other night of the year. So, if you really want to keep your kids safe, focus on making sure they are visible to cars and are very careful about crossing the street, particularly as darkness falls.

[Cross-posted at The Incidental Economist]

Aaron Carroll ,MD, is an associate professor of Pediatrics and the associate director of Children’s Health Services Research at Indiana University School of Medicine.

Comments

  • zandru on November 01, 2012 11:26 AM:

    Thanks for this, Mr. Carroll, but a few days EARLIER might have been more helpful.

    That said, lethal Halloween treats are right up there with in-person voter fraud as "urban" legends. For some reason, we really Want to Believe.

    Always topical, CAPTCHA asks prepared canddril?

  • bluewave on November 01, 2012 12:57 PM:

    Follow the money-- These rumors were the beginning of the end of people passing out homemade treats or fruit, but manufacturers of all things prepackaged (candy, granola bars, etc.) do enormously well out of Halloween. There weren't any emails around in those days to incriminate them but I wouldn't be surprised if it all started with a well-coordinated whisper campaign out of Candy, Inc. Doesn't matter anymore-- no one has time to make cookies to give out at Halloween these days.

  • labradog on November 03, 2012 4:27 PM:

    Dang.
    The prospect of being poisoned by neighbors was the only thing that still made Hallowe'en scary.
    Now it's all slutty witches, and toddlers and tiaras, and late night careening drunk drivers, but no possibility that the nice old couple down the street may want to murder us.
    Dang.