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Have you heard the scary news reports of how people are going to taint kids' candy with pot now that it's getting more legal? There's… no evidence for that. There's also no evidence that strangers poison kids' Halloween candy in general. That's the topic of this week's Healthcare Triage.

Aaron covers this every year on his blog. Here's last year's post:

It was also covered in his first book on medical myths:

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Have you heard the scary news stories about how strangers are gonna taint kids' candy with pot now that it's getting more legal?  There's no evidence for that.  There's also no evidence that strangers poison kids' Halloween candy in general.  

That's the topic of this week's Healthcare Triage.

[Healthcare Triage theme music playing]

As October draws to a close and kids begin to pick their Halloween costumes and anticipate huge candy feasts, a barrage of child safety warnings begin.

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.

I mean who wouldn't be paralyzed by fear that poison or a dangerous object had been placed in candy and then randomly handed out to children by strangers?  Parents I know carefully check each item of candy for any marks or tears in the packaging.

Some families abandon neighborhood trick-or-treating altogether and head to the mall.  How afraid do we need to be about Halloween candy?  Is the sky falling?  Spoiler alert - no!

Why do we become so afraid of tampered Halloween candy in the first place?  News reports of Halloween candy tampering have been popping up since the 1950's.

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 labeled 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 poison 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 stranger 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 candy.

The majority were the results 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.

For instance, 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, however, 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 may be found guilty of neglect, they put some of the heroin in his candy bag in the hopes of covering up their part in his death.

In 1974, 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 within their own homes, not faceless strangers.  

A 1990 case involved Ariel Katz, a seven-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 four-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, and her candy wasn't contaminated.

And while the initial reports blaming Halloween candy make front page in the top of the news break, the corrections rarely do.  Although lots of websites and our first book, which you should buy, have detailed these and other cases, neither their searches nor ours have revealed any evidence of actual random Halloween poisonings by strangers.  And this myth still persists.

Tainted cupcakes cupcakes will be blamed for adolescent abdominal pain only to have the teenager later admit that he overdosed on prescription medications.  And that actually happened!

Reviews of the medical literature also failed to turn up random acts of Halloween violence.  

And the health services researcher in me is appalled at how I can't get some patients the X-Rays they need, but some emergency rooms seem to have the time and resources to X-Ray kids' candy in the fruitless search for some phantom menace.  

Look, I can't definitively proof that no child has ever been killed by a stranger poisoning their Halloween candy.  But I can state that no such event has been documented in the media to the best of my knowledge.

And here's the real problem, kids DO face some real health risks on Halloween.  Those come from cars though, not candy.  National Safety Council reports that children are at an increased risk of injury as pedestrians, being two to 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, stop focusing on their candy bags, and make sure that they're visible to cars and are very careful about crossing the street, especially as it gets dark.

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