A number of news reports over the past few weeks have claimed that something called fentanyl rainbows may be lurking in the Halloween candy children will be picking up this year. And while the substance — brightly colored pills or powder — fentanyl — is dangerous, it’s a myth that you can find fentanyl in Halloween candy, experts and officials say.
Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid. About two-thirds of the 108,000 of drug overdose deaths in the United States last year included synthetic opioids like fentanyl, according to data from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
The uproar over rainbow fentanyl began in August, when the Drug Enforcement Administration shared a press release warning that across the nation, “brightly colored fentanyl” has been “seized in multiple forms, including pills, powders and blocks resembling sidewalk chalk.” While the DEA said its laboratory testing found the substance to be no more potent than plain fentanyl, the organization said it was concerned that colorful versions of the drug were being used “to look like candy” and attract “children and young people.”
More experts in the field of substance use and damage reduction told TODAY they are skeptical of the DEA’s claims, noting that the colorful, banned pills have been around for years and include substances like ecstasy, not just fentanyl. While experts have acknowledged that fentanyl is a a public health problemthey said there is no data showing that children and young people are being targeted.
“Multicolored pills are a thing in (legitimate) pharmaceuticals, and they probably came out to mimic what real pills are and what they look like,” said Dr. Ryan Marino, a medical toxicologist and addiction medicine doctor at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland. He noticed it publicity photo shared by the DEA appears to show fentanyl disguised as oxycodone pills. “They don’t look like candy at all. . . . Colored drugs have been around for years, if not decades.”
The myth that parents need to worry about finding drugs in their children’s Halloween candy goes back much further than the furore over rainbow fentanyl. According to Dr. Joel Best, a professor of sociology and criminal justice at the University of Delaware who decades of research of what he calls Halloween sadism, that myth is as old as modern Halloween celebrations.
“I knew a folklorist … who was born in the ’30s, and she reported hearing stories of people who would hold pennies in a pan and then pour the hot pennies into the outstretched hands of the cheaters,” he explained. Best. “The concern that someone might contaminate treats has been around for a while. It picked up speed in the 1960s, and by the late 1960s it was pretty well established.”
Best said that despite decades of fear mongering, he has never found data showing that children are being targeted by contaminated or dangerous Halloween treats.
“I have records going back to 1958 … and I can’t find a single case of a child being killed or seriously injured by a contaminated treat picked up during trick or treating,” Best said. One exception is the 1974 case of Ronald Clark O’Bryan, who distributed candy with potassium cyanide to their children in an effort to collect life insurance money. His 8-year-old son died, and O’Bryan was found guilty and sentenced to death. Best said he sees this case as an exception because “that’s not what people worry about when they ask if it’s safe to go trick-or-treating.”
“This is a boogeyman,” Best said. “We’ve stopped believing in ghosts and goblins. We believe in criminals.”
Best said he’s not surprised that concerns about fentanyl in Halloween candy are high this year: The urban legend of the tainted treats seems to come after threats were made in the news.
“If there’s a crime story in September, it’s going to be tied to that year’s Halloween scares,” Best said, noting that similar fears arose in 1982 after several people were killed by tainted Tylenol in September of that year. There was another round of concern about the drug being distributed in 2014, Best said, after Colorado legalized the retail sale of recreational marijuana.
While the DEA continued to warn about the fentanyl rainbow and issue press releases about the seizure of the substance, DEA Administrator Anne Milgram said NBC News’ Kate Snow that the administration does not believe that children are in danger this Halloween. The DEA declined to speak with TODAY for this article, instead referring to interview.
“At this point … we haven’t seen anything to indicate that this is going to be related to Halloween or that drug dealers are putting it in Halloween candy,” Milgram said in a September interview. “If we ever had that information, I would release it immediately because I want everyone to know what we know.”
While there’s nothing wrong with being cautious this Halloween, Marino said spending too much energy on the fear of spoiled treats can keep people from focusing on the right ways for prevention fentanyl overdose deaths, including children. Drug overdose deaths among 14-18-year-olds nearly doubled between 2019 and 2020, and then another 20% in the first half of 2021, primarily caused by fentanyl, often packaged to look like prescription drugs, NBC News reported.
“Being afraid of things that aren’t real is problematic, and we’ve seen that with the fentanyl touch overdose phenomenon and the catastrophic outcomes they have for everyone,” Marino said, speaking of concerns that people may overdose on fentanyl just by touching, which he said was not supported by research.
The biggest, real threat to children’s health on Halloween? Car injury, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. So make sure your child has reflective tape on their costume or bag, can see clearly through their costume, trick or treat in the group, stick to well-lit roads and sidewalks, use only designated crosswalks, and never assume they have right of way when a car is coming.
This story first appeared on DANAS.com. More from TODAY: