Childhood exposure to marijuana – What you should know

The recent decriminalization of medical marijuana in several states in the US comes as good news to those who depend on the drug for treatment of chronic disease. But there are also drawbacks to these changes in legislation; in particular, more children are being accidentally exposed to marijuana smoke and marijuana in food. What should parents and health care providers know about the health effects of marijuana, and what steps should we take to keep our children safe?

What is the difference between medical and recreational marijuana?
In essence there is no difference between marijuana sold for medical and recreational use. Recreational marijuana sellers use many of the same growers and kinds of marijuana as for medical marijuana. However it should be noted that there are a number of different kinds of marijuana, some of which have lower levels of THC and higher levels of other substances believed to help improve certain medical conditions. Medicinal marijuana has been methodically processed to have more therapeutic effects, and types that are processed for recreational use may have more properties that affect mood and thinking.

How can children be exposed to marijuana?
Children can be exposed to marijuana either by breathing in secondhand smoke or eating foods containing marijuana. 85% of secondhand smoke comes off the end of the cigarette or joint. The rest of the secondhand smoke has been exhaled by the user back out into the environment, which children breathe in. There are reports of smoke exposure severe enough to require admission to the intensive care unit.

Most children who require hospital treatment have eaten marijuana. Many new marijuana products on the market are tempting to children because they look like bakery products and candies. These products often contain more tetrahydrocannabinal (THC) than marijuana smoke.

Is marijuana smoke dangerous to children?
Smoke from marijuana contains a complex chemical mixture, which may be dangerous. A study in 2008 showed that marijuana smoke contained many of the same cancer-causing chemicals as tobacco smoke. Certain chemicals, including cyanide and ammonia, are significantly higher in marijuana smoke compared to cigarette smoke. Parents should keep their children away from marijuana smoke.

What are the health effects of marijuana exposure in children?
When children eat food containing marijuana they can have extreme sleepiness or lethargy. Children can also experience the same effects as adults including blood shot eyes, increased appetite, dry mouth, anxiety, and impaired motor coordination. If they inhale the smoke they can have lung irritation and asthma attacks. Most symptoms will last for 2-24 hours after exposure. No childhood deaths have been reported as a result of marijuana poisoning. If you think your child has eaten or inhaled marijuana, contact your local poison center.

What are potential long-term health effects of marijuana smoke exposure?
Many of the long-term health effects of exposure to marijuana smoke are still being studied, but it may cause cough and respiratory infections. There is also an increased risk of heart attack, stroke, decreased fertility, and alterations in memory, attention, and learning. As of now, there is no clear evidence that secondhand exposure to marijuana smoke can cause cancer, although marijuana smoke contains cancer-causing chemicals.

Can children get a “contact high”?
When marijuana plant material is burned, it triggers a chemical reaction that produces THC. While a large portion of the THC is delivered directly to the smoker’s lungs, a smaller but still significant amount is released into the air. The level of exposure to THC through the air is higher if it is being smoked in a small, enclosed area or an area with poor ventilation. A study conducted in 1983 showed that inhalation of second-hand marijuana smoke can result in detectable levels of THC in the blood and urine. The marijuana used in this study contained 2.8% THC, and the average THC level in today’s marijuana is 18%. THC levels can be as high as 50% if the user is vaporizing the plant oils.

Is smoking marijuana dangerous during pregnancy?
It can be. A study published in 1994 showed that children aged 3 and older whose mothers smoked marijuana during pregnancy had a decrease in attention span, brain function, and memory. A similar study in 2004 showed that children born to mothers who smoked marijuana in the first and third trimesters of pregnancy had higher levels of anxiety and depression.

How can I protect my child from the health hazards of marijuana?

• Keep your home free of marijuana smoke.

• Do not smoke marijuana in the car or other small, enclosed places.

• Keep marijuana-containing foods or drinks out of reach of children.

• Contact your local poison center if you think your child may have eaten or inhaled marijuana.

This post was written by Kristina Dakis, Medical student at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Medicine. Edited by Susan Buchanan, MD.

Anderson M, Wang GS, Keteles K, Van Dyke M. Pediatric exposure to marijuana. PEHSU Network National Conversation. Apr. 2014.

Colorado Marijuana. Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment – The State of Colorado, n.d. Web. 10 Aug. 2014.

Wang GS, Roosevelt G, Heard K. Pediatric marijuana exposures in a medical marijuana state. JAMA Pediatr. 2013 Jul;167(7):630-3.

Wang GS, Narang SK, Wells K, Chuang R. A case series of marijuana exposures in pediatric patients less than 5 years of age. Child Abuse Negl. 2011 Jul;35(7):563-5.

Smart Meters and Your Health

We’ve received a few calls from residents who are worried about possible radiation exposure from smart meters installed in their homes by utility companies. Read on for information about this topic:

What are smart meters?

Smart meters measure your home’s use of electricity, natural gas, or water. The measurements are used to bill you for the services. In the past, information from the meters was read by employees of the utility who came to your house. Smart meters, on the other hand, automatically send usage information directly to the utility companies.

How do smart meters work?
Smart meters send information to their central systems using radiofrequency (RF) transmissions, based on the same technology that is used by cell phones, pagers, radios, and Wi-Fi. Concerns have been raised about the safety of smart meters, mainly because they create electromagnetic fields, which are considered a form of radiation.

What are electromagnetic fields?
Electromagnetic fields are a basic force of nature (like gravity), that are generated by electricity. They are found almost everywhere in nature where they are created by things such as lightning and static electricity. Human-made RF radiation from electromagnetic fields occurs wherever people use electricity, such as near power lines and electrical appliances.

How are people exposed to RF radiation from smart meters?
The amount of RF radiation people are exposed to from the smart meter depends on their distance from the meter antenna and the power of the RF signal. The amount of radiation given off by a smart meter is similar to that of a typical cell phone, cordless phone, or residential Wi-Fi router. Smart meters typically send and receive short messages about 1% of the time, so transmission does not occur continuously, as it does with cell phones and WiFi.

Smart meters are typically installed outside the home. Therefore, people are much farther away from the source of RF waves than some other possible sources of exposure such as cell phones and cordless phones within the home. In addition, walls that separate the smart meter’s antenna from the building occupants further reduce the amount of exposure. This means that the amount of RF radiation residents are exposed to from a smart meter is probably much lower than the amount from other sources.

Can smart meters cause cancer?
RF radiation is low-energy radiation, called non-ionizing radiation because it doesn’t have enough energy to remove ions from atoms. Non-ionizing radiation causes atoms to vibrate, which creates heat but does not directly damage DNA. RF radiation is classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), as “possibly carcinogenic to humans.” This is based on the finding in at least one study of a possible link between cell phone use and a specific type of brain tumor.

Because RF radiation is a possible carcinogen, and smart meters give off RF radiation, it is possible that exposure to a smart meter could increase cancer risk. But to be exposed to an amount of radiation sufficient to increase your risk of cancer to any significant degree you would have to stand next to a meter that was continuously transmitting signals for several years! This is an unlikely scenario, which is why smart meters are considered safe. The likelihood of cancer is just too low.

Can smart meters cause any other health problems?
Smart meters have not been studied to see if they cause health problems. But studies of RF radiation emitted from other sources have shown that exposure to large amounts of RF radiation, such as during accidents involving radar, has resulted in severe burns. No other serious health problems have been reported.

Do smart meters interfere with electronic medical devices such as heart pacemakers?
A study that examined the effect of smart meters on pacemakers and implantable defibrillators found that the smart meters did not interfere with these devices.

What about health effects to children?
While is it true that children are more vulnerable to environmental exposures than adults, there is no evidence that children may be harmed by smart meters.

How do I reduce my exposure to RF radiation from smart meters?
Because low levels of RF radiation have not been clearly shown to cause health problems, lowering your exposure from smart meters will probably not make a difference to your health.
“What are Smart Meters?” American Cancer Society

“Short Factsheet on EMF.” California Electric and Magnetic Fields Program

December 2014. This fact sheet was authored by Jose Marquez, University of Illinois at Chicago medical student and Susan Buchanan, MD, MPH, Director of the Great Lakes Center for Children’s Environmental Health – Region 5 Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit (PEHSU). The Region 5 PEHSU is part of a national network of experts in children’s environmental health who provide quality medical consultation for health professionals, parents, caregivers, and patients on health risks due to a natural or human-made environmental hazards. Call our Hotline if you have questions about this or any other environmental health issue: 866-967-7337.

This document was supported by the Association of Occupational and Environmental Clinics (AOEC) and funded (in part) by the cooperative agreement award number 1U61TS000118-05 from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR).
Acknowledgement: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) supports the PEHSU by providing funds to ATSDR under Inter-Agency Agreement number DW-75-92301301-0. Neither EPA nor ATSDR endorse the purchase of any commercial products or services mentioned in PEHSU publications.

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