The Truth About Halloween Poisonings
Halloween is a holiday celebrated in the United States on October 31 of each year in which children wear costumes, go to neighbors' houses, and collect candy and other foods after saying "trick or treat." Since this is a medical website, this article focuses on medical concerns related to Halloween.
THE FACTS ABOUT HALLOWEEN POISONINGS
One concern many parents have is that some crazed madman will place poison or place hazardous objects such as razor blades in the Halloween candy and randomly hand it out to children. Although one can never rule out the possibility of this happening, it appears very rare indeed. Below is a chronological listing of reported Halloween candy "poisonings" and the facts that surround them. As you will see, the vast majority of cases turn out not to be actual poisonings.
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WHAT OTHER SAFETY PRECATIONS CAN I TAKE ON HALLOWEEEN?
Besides not eating candy that is homemade, unwrapped, or has a torn wrapper, one of the most important safety precautions is to remind children to look both ways when crossing the street. This is because children are at increased risk of dying in a car accident on Halloween after running across the street to get candy. Other safety precautions include using a flashlight at night (to make it easier to see and easier for drivers to see those with costumes), going out in groups, and avoiding houses that are unlit. Adult supervision is recommended.
Make sure costumes, such as princess outfits or those with capes are not so long that they pose tripping hazards. Avoid masks that obstruct vision. Avoid running to prevent tripping and falling. Motorists should not drive any faster than 5mph in residential neighborhoods on Halloween and should be very alert to the presence of children.
1964: Probably the earliest case associated with an alleged Halloween "poisoning" was when Helen Pfeil, of Greenlawn, New York, handed out arsenic-laced ant poison buttons to trick or treaters. Arsenic is a type of element found inside the earth's crust, which has been used for centuries as a poison because it is slowly released from the body. As a result, it can quickly become toxic. Ms. Pfeil was handing out the arsenic buttons because she was upset that children who were too old were coming to her house to trick or treat.
The buttons were handed out in a bag that also included dog biscuits and steel wool pads. The buttons were marked "poison" and had a skull and cross-bones on them. Ms. Pfeil reportedly also told the children that the bags she was handing out was meant as a joke. Even though no child was harmed, she was still charged with endangering children, pleaded guilty, and received a suspended sentence.
1970: In Detroit, a 5-year-old boy named Kevin Toston died from a heroin overdose. Heroin is a very powerful illegal drug that is similar to morphine (a pain reliever), but which has no acceptable medical use in the United States. Like most illegal substances, heroin is highly addictive, creating the need for safe havens and help centers, such as Michael's House. Although it was originally reported that heroin was found sprinkled on the child's Halloween candy, what actually happened was that the child found his uncle's secret heroin stash, ingested it, lapsed into a coma, and died. The family then sprinkled heroin on his Halloween candy to protect the uncle! A coma is a state of deep unconsciousness in which there are no voluntary movements, no response to pain, and no speech. To avoid getting to the point where one lases into a coma (or worse) there are now many treatment centers for heroin addiction.
1974: This is the year of the most famous case of Halloween poisoning. In Houston, Texas, Ronald Clark O'Bryan (sometimes referred to as "The Candy Man" and "The Pixie Stick Killer") killed his son (Timothy) by placing cyanide in a type of candy known as Pixie Sticks. Cyanide is a type of highly toxic chemical compound that contains carbon which is strongly bonded to nitrogen. Carbon and nitrogen are two common types of elements. Cyanide is highly toxic because it interferes with the ability to breathe.
O'Bryan killed his son to collect $20,000 in life insurance. He attempted to cover up the crime by distributing the candy to another one of his children and three other children. He apparently placed the candy in their bags while accompanying them during trick or treating. Fortunately, the other children did not eat the candy. OBryan was convicted in May 1975 and was executed via lethal injection on March 31, 1984.
1982: In Detroit, a youth became ill and was taken to the doctor, who misread the lab results and concluded the child had cyanide poisoning. The doctor went public with allegations that someone poisoned the childs Halloween candy. Further tests to determine what was wrong with the child were inconclusive and later tests of the candy by the Food and Drug Administration were negative (meaning there was no trace of cyanide found).
1988: Maryland Hospital Center discovered a needle in a candy bar when some Halloween candy was X-rayed. The case was never solved.
1990: In Santa Monica, California, a 7-year old girl named Ariel Katz died of heart failure while trick or treating. However, the child had heart problems from birth and the autopsy stated she died of an enlarged heart.
1991: In Washington D.C., a 31-year old man named Kevin Cherry died after eating some of his child's Halloween candy. As it turns out, he coincidentally died of heart failure, which was unrelated to eating Halloween candy. However, the story was enough to cause widespread panic.
1994: After Halloween, a 3-year-old child in New Britain, Connecticut was diagnosed with cocaine intoxication. However, more than a week later, police stated no traces of cocaine or any other illegal drugs were found in the leftover Halloween candy. The child reportedly had a habit of placing anything in his mouth, so he could have become sick after ingesting some household substance.
1996: In San Jose, California, a 7-year-old named Ferdinand Siquig collapsed after eating candy and cookies he was given while trick or treating. Initial urine analysis showed traces of cocaine, but additional tests performed by other labs came back showing no traces of cocaine.
2000, STORY #1: In Minneapolis, Minnesota, James Joseph Smith was charged with intent to cause death, harm, or illness after handing out candy bars with needles in them. One child was pricked with a needle when biting into a candy bar but no one was seriously injured.
2000: STORY #2: In Hercules, California, some candy bars were made up to look like Snickers bars but were actually marijuana packets. Police traced the "treats" back to the homeowner, who denied any purposeful involvement. The story provided was that a box of what appeared to be Snickers bars were left at a post office without enough postage or an incorrect address. With no way to return the box to the sender, the homeowner (who worked in the post office) took the box home and decided to hand it out as Halloween candy. The homeowner thought he was handing out a treat, but the trick was on him in the end.
2001: In Vancouver, Canada, a 4-year-old named Tiffaney Young died after eating Halloween candy. However, the cause of death was later determined to be a non-contagious bacterial infection. The candy had nothing to do with her death.
IF CHOCOLATE LOOKS GRAY, IS THAT BECAUSE IT IS POISONED?
Most likely not. Chocolate most commonly appears gray when exposed to too much heat or moisture. But a good quote to keep in mind is "When in doubt, throw it out."
THERE IS WHITE POWDER OUTSIDE MY CANDY BAR. IS THAT POISON?
Most likely not. The white powder that sometimes appears on the surface of candy is usually salt, sugar, or cornstarch that was not completely taken off during manufacturing.
WHAT PRECAUTIONS CAN I TAKE TO PREVENT MY CHILD FROM EATING TAMPERED CANDY?
First, make sure you know where your child will go trick or treating and be sure to avoid dangerous neighborhoods. Make a rule that no candy can be eaten until returning home and inspect the bag for any obvious signs of tampering. You may want to have a rule that you will not eat anything homemade, unwrapped, or which has a torn wrapper. Examine the candy for anything that looks suspicious and when in doubt, throw it out. Although x-rays would detect metal fragments in the candy, it would not detect poisonous liquids, which is why few medical facilities use x-rays with Halloween candy.
A final precaution has to do with the use of cosmetic contact lenses that some children uses as part of a certain costume to make their eyes appear a certain color. Cosmetic contact lenses, like corrective contact lenses, are medical devices that require a prescription. If cosmetic contact lenses are not used properly, permanent eye damage can result, with the worst case scenario being blindness. A example would be an infection of the cornea leading to blindness. The cornea is the clear covering at the front of the eyeball.
According to an amendment to the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, all contact lenses sold in the U.S. must be fit and dispensed by a professional eye care specialist. Unfortunately, many children are getting contact lenses without a prescription. This makes it less likely the person will get a proper fit and learn how to properly care for the contact lenses. With proper fitting and instructions, contact lenses can be worn safely.