A Colorful Little Tale of Halloween Poison

I grew up on a dead-end street in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where remnants of swampy forest surrounded the old wood-frame homes. Live oaks lined the streets. Spanish moss dripped from their branches.  Snakes coiled under the ancient azaleas that edged the yards.

It was, in fact, the perfect setting for a haunted Halloween night. And there was this one house, you know, where the yard was so dense with bush and tree that it could barely be seen through its thicket of shadow. To trick-or-treat, you walked up the dark sidewalk toward a faint glow on the front porch, just the one lit window. The air hummed with passing insects and the porch creaked like Dracula’s coffin under your feet, the slow, dry eek of old wood.

Reader, you had to beware on Halloween night. Just a block over lived a maniacal dentist who liked to dress up like a werewolf on October 31 and fill his front hall with clouds of drifting fog created by dropping dry ice (super-chilled chunks of carbon dioxide) into water. Bwa-ha-ha, he would chortle as he opened the door, as the chilly wisps of fog drifted out around him.

But this silent house, dressed in darkness, was so much scarier. We children would gather in front of the gate, unable to walk alone through those prowling shadows.  The crowd would form on the sidewalk: tiny pillowcase ghosts and jeweled princesses, small pirates and glittery fairies. When someone decided we’d achieved a safe number, we’d start edging toward the green door at the top of the porch steps. Whispering about what the old man who lived there would hand out – what dangerous treats might wait for us there.

This was the 1960s and even then, people told stories, warned their children, about the psychopaths out there who might drop poisoned candy into one’s hands. In the long history of the holiday, truthfully, this has almost never happened. But the very nature of Halloween – the witch at the door, the monster in the closet – lends itself to such ideas.  Wasn’t there a crazy woman on Long Island in 1964, after all, who handed out arsenic to trick-or-treaters she thought  too old for the candy hunt?

It hardly mattered that as Snopes points out, she didn’t kill anyone. And her deliberate poisoning attempt seems to be an odd exception to the general goodwill of the holiday. The psychopath at the door is an urban myth. Most of the poisonous Halloween stories turn out to be mistakes or  far more personal tragedies.  The worst is that of a Texas father who murdered his eight-year-old son in 1974 for insurance money.

He did so by putting cyanide into into the fruit-flavored sugar inside a Pixie Stick, one of the child’s favorites.  In an attempt to make the death seem like a random poisoning, the father – Ronald Clark O’Bryan – also gave cyanide-laced candy to his daughter and three other children in his Deer Park neighborhood. These other lethal treats were collected by police as (fortunately) the children hadn’t touched them.

O’Bryan – nicknamed The Candyman by the Texas media – was executed by lethal injection ten years after his son’s death. But people remembered. And they forgot that the worst outbreak of Halloween candy poisoning had nothing to do suspected killers. The biggest poison outbreak – linked to Halloween of 1950 – was simply caused by orange food coloring used by candy manufacturers.

Scores of children across the country fell ill with severe diarrhea and welting rashes after eating candy and popcorn balls tinted by the FDA approved Orange Dye No. 1         ( also known as FD&C Orange No. 1, Acid Orange 20, and Orange 1).  The “FD&C” indicates that the dye is used in food, drugs and cosmetics. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, Orange 1 was used primarily in candy, cookies, cakes, carbonated beverages, and meat-products such as hot dogs.

As federal investigators would discover upon investigation, the dye was also a rash-inducing occupational health hazard. Orange 1 belonged to a group of seven dyes first approved by the federal government in the year 1906, the first year that this country began regulating food safety. All seven of these dyes were coal-tar dyes, derived originally from the hydrocarbon byproducts of processed coal. Orange 1, for instance, contained benzene, today one of our better known toxic compounds.

But at that Halloween moment in 1950, no one had thought much about colored food. In fact, officials at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration suddenly realized that no one had really taken a good look at these turn-of-the-century food dyes for almost 50 years. The FDA promptly launched an investigation that found that, yes, Orange 1 was definitely poisonous: an oral dose of one gram of the dye per one kilogram of food killed two out of five mice in a day. A 20-week-experiment mixing the dye into rat food killed three of eight test rats.

The researchers also found that manufacturers were tossing the dye into candy corn and sugary little pumpkins with surprising enthusiasm. According to a 1954 article in The New York Times, one piece of candy was 1,500 parts per million pure Orange 1. Two years later, in 1956,  the FDA delisted Orange 1 as well as Orange 2 (used to deepen the color of oranges) and Red Dye No. 32.  Twelve other food colorings have been delisted since that time. This doesn’t reassure everyone; consumer advocates still worry over the health effects of food coloring.

But – take at least this reassurance: it’s been a long time since we saw children falling ill across the country because they indulged in an extra handful of candy corn, not realizing that its cheerful orange was a signal for trouble. We’re mostly smart enough to realize that regulating food safety offers more protection than worrying about the crazy man behind the door.

Which brings me back to my friends and I hesitating at that shadowy gate on a Halloween night in Louisiana.  Let me tell you what happened, Halloween after Halloween. Slowly, we inched down the sidewalk, creaked up the steps, quavered at the door. Slowly, the door pulled open and the slightly tottering elderly man opened the screen to drop glossy red apples into our bags.

Every year it added an extra thrill to the night. But, reader, you had to beware on Halloween night. I’m almost positive they were just bright fall apples. But our parents wouldn’t let us eat them.

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5 Responses to A Colorful Little Tale of Halloween Poison

  1. Jane Hersey says:

    I love your story about Halloween as a child. The good news is that the deadly orange dye is gone, but the bad news is that since those days the amount of synthetic dyes being used in our foods has increased about 500%!
    Food dyes today are synthesized from petroleum — most start out in petroleum refineries in China — and are allowed to have toxic contaminants like lead, mercury and — yes, arsenic! They are just not supposed to have too much of these poisons.
    But since the dyes are used in such large quantities, there are more and more children who are experiencing their harmful effects. ADHD, asthma, hives, ear infections are the more obvious effects. But the Feingold Association’s web site (www.feingold.org) lists many research studies showing numerous examples of serous health damage. And very little research has considered what happens when you mix different dyes, preservatives, MSG, aspartame, etc. One notable study that did take a look found nerve damage was dramatically increased when two additives were combined. (Has anyone taken a look at a typical breakfast with the neon multi-colored cereal, fake orange juice, purple vitamins, fluorescent pink amoxycillin?)
    Happily, there are naturally colored candies readily available here in the United States. In Europe it’s much easier to find them since the European Union requires food companies to put warning labels on foods if they contain the major dyes.
    Today, most of the food dyes have been banned as health hazards, but the few stubborn survivors are being used in huge quantities…several hundred per day for a typical consumer. But nobody has to eat petroleum (and suffer the side effects). The nonprofit Feingold Association shows families how to find the Good Stuff.

  2. Bacopa says:

    Ronald O’Bryan was The Candyman. The Houston area had just gotten over being menaced by serial killer Dean Corll who was known as The Candy Man, note the space to make the distinction.

    Corll’s story is not so well known, even though he was one of the fasted-paced serial killers out there.

  3. Rebecca says:

    Hi, I love your post. The day you posted this, I launched my blog about our own painful dye-sensitivity ordeal. I found out my daughter is super sensitive to food coloring, and some synthetic flavorings too. Through her experience, my husband and I subsequently realized we are affected by dyes too. Our life has changed since ditching the dyes. I collect others’ stories from guest writers on my blog at http://www.DieFoodDye.com and participate in discussions on the “Die, Food Dye!” facebook page. I’ve met so many people who have this allergy, and their children too. I try to tweet daily info to spread awareness too (@DieFoodDye). I am encouraging folks to tweet food manufacturers to ask WHEN they will nix the dyes and flavorings, preservatives, HFCS, etc. Currently working on a Science Night presentation at our school to teach kids and parents to read food labels. I want to spread awareness to teachers, doctors, lawmakers, parents, grandparents, nannies, and school cafeteria managers. These additives need to be banned until proven safe, rather than approved until proven unsafe. Thanks for writing about this little-known but important issue!

  4. Deborah Blum says:

    Your blog is terrific – smart and really needed. Most people don’t realize how often our food is dyed. I’ve asked myself why we have such a difficult time just enjoying nature’s colors. I actually just finished a piece for the literary magazine, Tin House, on food dyes – should be out in the spring issue, I think. And I’m just starting a book on the poisonous history of food so I’ll definitely be following your work. Thanks for the heads up!

  5. Rebecca says:

    Thanks so much for the info, for spreading the word, and for encouragement. I look forward to reading your piece in the Spring. Fascinating work! More personal accounts are coming in all the time, so we’ll have lots more for dye-sensitive folks to read and relate to in 2012: An early Feingold parent’s view on an evolving food system; musings on ridiculous marketing; deep-seated food traditions such as Girl Scout cookies; children’s descriptions of how dyes make them feel (and peer pressure); school food improvement; and teaching kids healthy choices paired with coping skills. I’m excited that people are talking about these things these days. :)