- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 29, 2000

Trick or treating is alive and well, bringing expensive costumes, pumpkin-patch trips and that favorite of snacks candy. While children are enjoying themselves, parents need to be aware of the potential for unintentional harm on Halloween, with falls, burns and pedestrian injuries topping the list, says Heather Paul, executive director of the National Safe Kids Campaign.

Miss Paul calls Halloween "one of the most dangerous nights of the year," because, she says, "kids are walking in the dark with unwieldy costumes in the streets and around jack o' lanterns and candles."

And plenty of children are out there. In fact, 90 percent of 500 children surveyed nationally last year by the National Confectioners Association said they usually participate in the holiday, says Susan Fussell, the association's communications manager.

"Halloween is still safe, but it requires parental supervision and diligence," says Laura Wilkinson, manager of community safety at the National Safety Council in Itasca, Ill. "The leading problem at Halloween is falls, which might surprise people, but if you think about the costumes and the obstructed vision, you understand why," she says. "Make sure the costumes aren't so long as to be a tripping hazard," Miss Wilkinson says.

Dress children in shoes that fit, not in adult shoes that they can trip over, advises Safe Kids. In addition, avoid costumes made of flimsy material and outfits with big, billowy sleeves or skirts. These are more likely to come into contact with an exposed flame, such as a candle. The Safety Council advises only using fire-retardant materials for costumes.

Costumes can figure into pedestrian safety as well. Safe Kids says outfits should be light-colored to make children more visible to motorists. Be leery of masks that can obstruct a child's vision. If masks are worn, they should have nose and mouth openings and large eye holes.

In addition, parents should keep in mind that their children may not remember basic traffic rules in the excitement of trick or treating.

"Parents often overestimate their children's pedestrian skills, and many times, children under 10 have not yet developed the cognitive skills to cross the street," Miss Paul says.

For problem-free trick or treating rounds, the two safety groups advise parents to make sure an adult supervises the outing for children, especially those younger than 12. Children should travel only in familiar areas and along es-tablished routes.

"Tell children to stop only at houses or apartment buildings that are well-lit and never to enter a stranger's house," Miss Wilkinson says.

After children finish their rounds and return home, parents should take a look at the loot before letting children rummage through their bags, she says. Permit children to eat only that which is individually packaged.

Any truth to the rumors of strangers playing evil tricks by sliding razor blades into the treats of unsuspecting children? "[Candy tampering] is not something we're really worried about," says Officer Quintin Peterson of the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department. "I've been here 19 years and have never encountered it."

And Miss Fussell says she is unaware of any documented cases of strangers tampering with candy, either.

"It's more an urban myth. I think it started after the aspirin scares of the '70s [when bottles of Tylenol were found to contain poisoned medication, resulting in a number of fatalities] it occurred to people that if it happened to aspirin," it could happen at Halloween. "But this does not mean you don't want to inspect your children's candy," she warns.

In years past, some hospitals have invited parents to bring in their children's trick or treat candy to X-ray for hidden objects. A spokes-woman for Children's National Medical Center in the District says the hospital has no plans to offer this service and does not know of any area hospitals that will.

Nor will the District follow any special restrictions on trick or treating, either.

"We will enforce curfew laws like we've been doing all along," says Officer Peterson. On weekdays, that curfew begins at 11 p.m. for children younger than 17.

"I don't really think you're going to have people knocking on your door at 11 o'clock at night, though," he says with a laugh.

No curfew law exists in Montgomery County. However, 9 or 9:30 p.m. is a reasonable time for the last of the older children to finish trick or treating, says Officer David Baker, a Montgomery County Police Department crime-prevention specialist.

Arlington County does not have curfew laws, either, says Police Department spokeswoman Kim Roberson.

"We just ask that people have common sense in letting their kids go out and trick or treat," she says. "Remember, this year Halloween is on a school night."

Many local government entities and private enterprises have responded to parental concerns about Halloween safety by offer-ing alternatives to door-to-door trick or treating.

To many parents, the major worry is not life and limb but rather dental health and safety. However Dr. George Acs, a Rockville pediatric dentist and father, says he doesn't have a problem with the candy blast of Halloween.

"I don't make a big deal out of it," even with very young children, Dr. Acs says. "The kids go into a feeding frenzy the first night, but they usually get over it pretty fast."

Actually, he says, it is the everyday snacks such as sports drinks and clingy, gummy "fruit" treats, for example, that should alarm parents concerned about dental health.

"We put so much attention on candy," says Dr. Acs, chairman of Children's National Medical Center Department of Dentistry. "But those so-called 'healthy' snacks have tons of sugar, and kids eat that stuff every day."

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