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Despite low risk, paranoid parents scan Halloween candy

Creating a colorful pile of wrappers, the medical center technician upends a basket of Skittles, Hershey bars, Twizzlers and other candy onto the bed of an x-ray machine.
/ Source: Reuters

Creating a colorful pile of wrappers, the medical center technician upends a basket of Skittles, Hershey bars, Twizzlers and other candy onto the bed of an x-ray machine.

Suzanne Mailler is demonstrating a procedure that will be repeated scores of times on Monday evening at the Chesapeake, Virginia medical clinic Patient First.

Across America, paranoid or justifiably cautious parents will bring in their children's trick-or-treat goodies for screening. Their fear is that the candy given to their children by strangers will be laced with glass, metal or other foreign objects.

Community relations manager Ian Slinkman said Patient First is offering the free service at 37 centers in Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania, providing "something fun for kids" and "a little bit of peace and mind" for parents.

Slinkman said clinics will also hand out free "safety blinkers," to make trick-or-treating children more visible, and "a little safety Halloween tip card for general Halloween safety."

Patient First has been x-raying candy for a decade, Slinkman said. "To my knowledge we haven't found anything that wasn't supposed to be there, and we view that as a good thing."

After the candy is x-rayed, showing up on the monitor like an arrangement of ghostly Lego blocks, children are given a DVD of the image to take home.

"They really enjoy seeing the inside of the candy; they can see the peanuts in the Snickers," according to Slinkman.

Halloween x-ray screenings will be provided by two Michigan cities -- Westland, at the 18th District Court, and Southfield, in a sports arena.

In Reno, Nevada, the Washoe County sheriff's office will screen candy at the district courthouse on Monday and Tuesday. PremiereScan P.C., a diagnostic imaging center in San Hose, California, will offer up x-rays for four hours on Tuesday.

"This is the second consecutive year we have done this," said PremiereScan outpatient coordinator Judith Delarosa, a parent of one. "You really never know," she said.

There is little research on the likelihood that a child will find something untoward in a piece of candy, according to Christopher Holstege, director of the University of Virginia's Division of Medical Toxicology.

"We don't really have any good data as to how often Halloween candy is tampered with," Holstege said. "You hear reports, but the question is, are those true reports?

A 1993 study on candy screening at five hospitals and three immediate care centers in Louisville, Kentucky on Halloween night in 1992, published in the journal Annals of Emergency Medicine, concluded the practice has "an extremely low yield" in detecting foreign materials.

A 1998 study, published in Veterinary and human toxicology, found the average cost of x-raying candy at three hospitals in the Reno area was $3.38 per bag.

"Children taking their candy to hospital on Halloween night risk involvement in traffic accidents," along with the additional drawbacks of overcrowding radiology departments and emergency rooms with excited children, the study concluded.

"The x-rays will pick up a needle in a piece of candy; it is not going to pick up soap, toxins -- if something was added to it. It's not going to pick up those things," said Holstege, a father of six aged nine to 18.

"The risk is exceedingly small to have your candy tampered with."

But for some parents just the thought of the scan gives them comfort. "It's an extra measure or protection," said Kim Gardner, a mother of a four-year-old child from Virginia Beach.

"Scanning candy is a really good idea because it can detect a lot of things, like glass, that you can't see through the candy wrappers," she said.