In too many cases, a shameful situation is being waved away like an annoying puff of smoke. Many babies and toddlers in this country are being exposed to marijuana smoke by their parents or caregivers who are hooked on weed.
A study to be presented this week at the 2016 Pediatric Academic Societies Annual Meeting in Baltimore, Maryland, has found that one in six infants and toddlers at a Colorado hospital with coughing, wheezing, and other symptoms of bronchiolitis tested positive for marijuana exposure.
“These children have no voice and no choice in their exposure,” said Dr. Karen M. Wilson, who conducted the study. She is an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and section head at Children’s Hospital Colorado.
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The study followed children admitted to the hospital between January 2013 and April 2014. The children came to the facility with bronchiolitis, an inflammation of the smallest air passages in the lung. Their parents completed questionnaires about their health, including exposure to tobacco and marijuana smoke.
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In the tots who had been exposed to marijuana, 16 percent of them had urine samples showing traces of a metabolite of THC — the psychoactive component of marijuana. The researchers also examined whether more kids showed up THC-positive before and after the sale of recreational marijuana became permissible, with restrictions, in the state of Colorado on January 1, 2014. (Under federal law, manufacturing, selling or possessing pot is still a crime, but President Obama has told the U.S. attorneys in Colorado and a few other states not to enforce the federal marijuana laws.)
After January 1, 2014, researchers noted that 21 percent of kids in the Colorado hospital had THC in their systems — up from 10 percent before the state’s drug laws were changed.
“Unfortunately, I wasn’t terribly shocked,” Wilson said of the study results.
Secondhand marijuana smoke is comprised of carcinogenic and psychoactive chemicals.
Dr. Stefan Kertesz, an associate professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, stated in previous research that marijuana smoke has many of the same irritant chemicals found in tobacco smoke, and can cause lung irritation, wheezing, and coughing immediately after use. His research indicated that long-term exposure can lower the lung airflow rate.
Kids’ exposure to marijuana could be a rising health concern for children as marijuana increasingly becomes available for medicinal and recreational use in the United States, according to Wilson. Most of the states that have relaxed the laws about selling marijuana do not restrict its combustion around children, she said.
“It’s very important [to know] that children can be exposed to the components of marijuana,” Wilson said.
Marijuana smokers have some of the same risks as tobacco smokers do, she noted. Studies already exist on the negative effects of secondhand marijuana smoke on adults.
“We don’t think there’s a reason somehow that children would be different,” Wilson said. She has called for more research into the effects of secondhand marijuana smoke on kids.
Wilson said the children exposed to tobacco were more likely to show marijuana exposure as well. Researchers have not studied the synergistic effect of exposure to both tobacco and marijuana smoke on children, she pointed out.
It’s also been proven that babies in utero can experience developmental effects when a parent smokes marijuana — something she thinks could be the same for kids exposed to marijuana on a consistent basis.
Wilson said many people believe it’s okay to smoke marijuana around children because it’s a plant, or because they think it is holistic. Just as tobacco smoke can predispose children to asthma, there’s no reason to think marijuana smoke is different, said Wilson.
“They think it’s safe,” she said. “It’s not safe. Even a wood stove in a home can increase the risk of a respiratory illness.”
“Marijuana is harmful not only to users but to the people around them,” said Kevin Sabet.
Research on secondhand exposure has shown it is at least as damaging as tobacco smoke, Dr. Kevin Sabet, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Florida and former senior adviser to the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy under President Obama, told LifeZette.
“Marijuana is harmful not only to users but to people around them,” said Sabet.
Some states’ efforts to make marijuana more available — pushed mostly by commercial interests — is making the situation much worse, Sabet noted.
“I think this could be the ultimate downfall of legalization,” Sabet said. “The fact that second- and thirdhand exposure to marijuana is harmful — that’s a nuisance no one wants to deal with.”
Wilson believes research into the health effects of marijuana is showing that it is an “under-recognized negative consequence of legalization.”
States that are mulling changing their laws on marijuana sales need to consider the negative health effects of this drug, Wilson said. If people cannot smoke marijuana in public — which is the case in Colorado — and they don’t have an outdoor space to use privately, they probably will do it in their homes.
“Marijuana should never be smoked in the presence of children,” she said in a statement.