The Detroit News

History proves candy tampering scare unfounded

by Iain Murray and Howard Fienberg
October 28, 2001

Halloween is a time for scary stories. Most of us adults know that these stories are not true. But this Halloween the best selling mask is expected to represent Osama Bin Laden, the real-life boogeyman of recent weeks.

With worries over anthrax and e-mail warnings of attacks at malls this year, is there a chance that those scare stories might come true? And isn't Halloween dangerous enough already? We can't really know what the terrorists might or might not do on Halloween, just like any other day of the year, but we can get a good idea of how much risk our children face by looking at those other "dangers."

Every year, parents are warned to check apples for razor blades and needles. Some hospitals and airports offer to X-ray children's trick-or-treat bags. In fact, this time-consuming and expensive practice has become so widespread that a controversy arose in St. Louis a few years ago when a local hospital decided to stop offering the service.

It did so because its experience has been consistent with the national data: Halloween candy tampering is a myth.

Joel Best, a professor at the University of Delaware, has studied national criminal data going back to 1958 and found only 76 reports of any kind of tampering. Almost all of these have turned out to be mistaken or fraudulent.

In all that time, there have been only three incidents of children dying in what were reported as cases of tainted candy. But even these had nothing to do with homicidal strangers.

A case in 1970 involved a child from Detroit who had stumbled upon, and eaten, his uncle's stash of heroin. The child's parents, not wanting the uncle to go to jail for possession, concocted the tainted-candy story.

In 1974, a Houston boy was intentionally poisoned by his father, who then made up the story about contaminated candy.

The third case, in 1990, concerned a Los Angeles-area girl with a congenital heart condition. The girl had a fatal seizure while trick-or-treating. Even though her parents immediately notified the authorities about their daughter's heart condition, the media blared shocking news reports of yet another incident of poisoned Halloween candy. No evidence of tampering was ever found.

Professor Best emphasizes that "It is not the number of cases; it is the fact that there aren't any cases that involve death or injury."

But might not our children fall victim to bioterrorism this year? Unlikely. It has been the powerful (Tom Daschle) and famous (Tom Brokaw) that have been the targets.

Americans may persist in scaring ourselves; however, in protecting children from an unproven threat, parents may not just be taking some of the fun out of childhood but also raising children in an atmosphere of paranoia, which cannot be good for them.

That is all the more true this year. But since Sept. 11, very few people have died. Three unfortunate people have died in the anthrax scare. Far more have died in car accidents -- some of which may have happened after people took the decision to drive rather than fly.

Sept. 11 reminded us that there are real monsters in the world. This Halloween we can help defeat them by putting a stake through the heart of irrational fear.

-- Iain Murray is senior analyst and Howard Fienberg is research analyst at the Statistical Assessment Service in Washington, D.C.

This article also appeared in the Hartford Courant and was cited by the Chicago Tribune, UPI and Detroit Free-Press.

return to Howard Fienberg's page