Is Trick-or-Treating Dangerous?

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Tom Stewart / Corbis

Halloween strikes fear into parents' hearts for reasons that have nothing to do with scary costumes. Hospitals have been offering to X-ray candy for decades, and this year a forensic lab in DuPage County, outside Chicago, will inspect suspicious sweets using technology that's usually reserved for homicide, sexual assault and burglary. Health officials are warning against letting kids scoop up candy with their germy hands, lest they spread H1N1 flu to other revelers. In Bobtown, Pa., spooked officials have banned trick-or-treating altogether. But is trick-or-treating really dangerous?

The most persistent Halloween bogeyman is tainted candy from strangers. The parental panic may stem from around 1964, when a woman handed out dog biscuits, steel-wool pads and ant poison (clearly marked with a skull-and-crossbones logo) to teenagers she deemed too old to be trick-or-treating. The horror story refuses to die down. "In recent years, there have been reports of people with twisted minds putting razor blades and poison in taffy apples and Halloween candy," Ann Landers wrote in 1995.

But were the reports true? For all the anecdotal evidence, the notion that psychotic strangers pose a danger to children has been repeatedly debunked. Only two children are known to have been killed by poisoned Halloween loot. In both cases, the perpetrators were family members who tried to exploit the trick-or-treating urban legend to throw police off their trail. Plenty of parents call poison centers to report concerns related to Halloween, says Gail Banach, director of education at the Upstate New York Poison Center in Syracuse, but overall complaints don't spike. And other experts agree that the concern is overblown. In 1985, Joel Best, a professor of sociology and criminal justice at the University of Delaware, studied media reports going back to 1958 and found no evidence "that any child has ever been killed or seriously harmed by a contaminated treat picked up in the course of trick-or-treating." Most of the 100 or so cases of alleged poisoning over the past 50 years, he adds, were probably hoaxes. "You can't prove a negative. You can't prove that it's never, ever happened," Best says. "[But] if it was happening, it would make the news."

So is there any likely candy-borne danger? Well, yes: eating your way to a bellyache. Dr. Tony Woodward, chief of emergency medicine at Seattle Children's Hospital, expects to see a few of those cases in any given year. "When they have a ton of candy in front of them, they're going to eat it," he says. Experts recommend filling kids up with snacks or dinner before sending them out so they'll be less tempted to nosh on sweets.

But even though candy doesn't pose much of a threat, trick-or-treating does carry safety hazards. According to the American College of Emergency Physicians, common Halloween injuries include eye wounds from sharp objects and burns from flammable costumes. The Poison Center's Banach notes that kids can have allergic reactions to face paint or makeup. "We always recommend that if you're using that kind of product, you test it out on a patch of skin before you put it all over your child to be the Incredible Hulk," she says.

But the biggest Halloween danger of all is car accidents. Children are more than twice as likely to be killed by a car while walking on Halloween night than at any other time of the year, according to a study by Safe Kids USA. Such tragedies are often preventable. Parents can make sure that costumes aren't too long, shoes don't make a child prone to tripping and masks don't restrict their vision. And parents of young children should accompany them on the walk around the neighborhood to keep them safe. "A lot of kids don't know the right way to cross the street because they're not walking anywhere on a regular basis," says Nichole Hodges, home safety coordinator for the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. "This may be a good time to provide that education as parents."

Ultimately, getting a child's candy X-rayed can't hurt — as long as parents aren't too preoccupied with overblown threats to watch out for real ones. "We do want to check the candy," says Hodges. "At the same time, we have to focus our energies on how kids are actually getting hurt."