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Poisoned candy turns out to be a Halloween myth

You've heard the advice before: Check your kid's candy bucket after going trick-or-treating. Throw away any homemade goodies. Sometimes hospitals even offer to X-ray the candy just to make sure there isn't a needle in that Snickers bar.

This advice turns out to be the ultimate Halloween prank, a horror that has never happened, not once, in the history of Halloween, according to a researcher who has studied reports of Halloween mischief dating back to the 1950s.

"Deviants typically do bad things because they are greedy or they are angry," said Joel Best, a professor of sociology and criminal justice at the University of Delaware. "They don't just poison kids for the sheer fun of it."

In nearly every suspected case of candy poisoning, Best has determined that it was either a hoax or an attempt to cover up other mischief. His conclusion: Reports of poisoned candy from strangers are a myth.

Even though Best first published his findings more than 20 years ago, the fear persists today, with nary a single razor blade in an apple to be found.

"I think an urban legend is harder to kill than a vampire," Best said.

The best-known case of Halloween candy tampering came in 1974, when Texas dad Ronald Clark O'Bryan killed his son by lacing his Pixy Stix with cyanide to claim $20,000 in life insurance. Before that, a Detroit 5-year-old died in 1970 after eating heroin supposedly hidden in his Halloween candy. It turned out the boy had simply gotten into his uncle's stash.

Aside from those cases, no child has been poisoned or seriously injured by Halloween candy received from strangers, Best said. In most reports, it turns out to be the kid himself doing it to get attention.

In September 1982, after seven people died in the Chicago area after taking poisoned Tylenol, fears over poisoning virtually shut down trick-or-treating everywhere, including in Tampa Bay. The city of St. Petersburg's annual festival at Al Lang Stadium doubled up on candy that year due to crowds of families looking for "safe" candy handouts.

In 2001, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and anthrax fears prompted parents to stay away from any powdered candy. The Hillsborough Sheriff's Office enlisted a doctor's office to screen Halloween treats using an X-ray machine at the Northdale Community Center.

This year, the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office is issuing a list of safety tips for motorists, parents and kids, said spokeswoman Debbie Carter.

"We just want people to use the same sort of caution you would use if they decided to walk around in their neighborhood any night of the year," Carter said.

Commercial interests, like malls and candy companies, are all too willing to exploit Halloween myths such as these, said Lenore Skenazy, writer of the Free Range Kids blog, which urges parents to let go of irrational fears of strangers and boogeymen. And police and federal agencies continue to reinforce them.

"There is a big echo chamber of fear," Skenazy said, author of Free Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts With Worry, "and nobody will ever criticize you for saying 'Please watch your kids,' even though there hasn't been a case of a child getting poisoned on Halloween. Ever."

Times researcher Mary Mellstrom contributed to this report.

Poisoned candy turns out to be a Halloween myth 10/29/09 [Last modified: Thursday, October 29, 2009 11:20am]

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