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‘Cannabis Poisonings’ in Young Children Have Skyrocketed in the Past Five Years, Study Finds

By Alexander Beadle

Published: Jan 06, 2023   
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The number of cannabis edible exposures in young children increased by 1,375% from 2017 to 2021, a new study has found.

Published this week in the journal Pediatrics, the study also found that the vast majority of incidents reported to poison control centers took place in a residential setting. This highlights the importance of proper child-resistant packaging, the researchers say, as well as the need to educate parents on how to safely store their edibles out of the reach of children.

One-in-five exposure cases results in hospital admission

This new study, led by researchers at the Southern Illinois University School of Medicine and the Illinois Poison Center, examined data reported to the National Poison Data System between the years 2017 to 2021. Specifically, the researchers focused on reports made to US poison centers that involved children under the age of six and that had an NPSD code to indicate that edible cannabis products were involved in the incident.

The researchers found a total of 207 pediatric cases of cannabis edible exposure that were reported in 2017. In contrast, there were 3,054 cases of this type reported in 2021 – an increase of 1,735%.

These findings are consistent with other recent studies that have found significant increases in all types of cannabis exposures reported to poison control over the past few years.

“It’s becoming more and more common. It’s important for people to understand that it’s a danger; it’s something that we’re really having to deal with,” said Christopher Pruitt in one news report. Pruitt is the medical director of the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) Shawn Jenkins Children’s Hospital Emergency Department. While Pruitt was not directly involved with this research, through his role at the MUSC, he has dealt with a number of pediatric cannabis exposure cases.

Across all the cases reported to poison control, this study found that 22.7% of cases resulted in a hospital admission. Of these, 573 were admitted to critical care and 1,027 to non-critical care, while a further 2,550 children were treated/evaluated and released after presenting to a local emergency department.

Most exposure cases are mild, take place in the home

For the majority of reports, the poison center data also included information on the medical outcome of each case. Around 2% of exposures were classed as having a major effect and 22% were marked as moderate. A further 31% were classed as minor, with the rest having either no significant effect or were lost to follow-up.

The most common effect reported was “CNS depression”, an umbrella term used to describe a range of decreased mental status conditions such as drowsiness, lethargy, and more severe incidents such as a coma. Tachycardia or vomiting were seen in around 10% of cases, with ocular or respiratory troubles also reported in around 6% and 3% of cases respectively.

The most common treatment given was the administration of intravenous fluids, which was done in around 20% of cases. Around 10% of cases were treated with some kind of dilution/irrigation/washing, with a similar number of children being given food or a snack to help them feel better.

Notably, while there were 35 very serious incidents reported that required a child to be intubated, no deaths were recorded across the timeframe of the study. Still, the researchers write that “it is important for clinicians to be aware that life-threatening sequelae can develop and may necessitate invasive supportive care measures.”

The researchers also found that more than 97% of exposures were found to have taken place in a residential setting, with 91% taking place in the child’s own residence.

“One important thing we hope people take away from this study is that the vast majority of these ingestions occur in a home, either the patient’s own home or another home setting,” lead study author Marit Tweet, an emergency medicine doctor at Southern Illinois Medicine, said in a statement.

“This should raise awareness that edible cannabis products should be stored away like other possible harmful substances in the home, like medications or cleaning chemicals.”

Speaking to NPR, Tweet added, “This age group accounts for about 40% of all calls to poison centers nationally. They can get into things, and you can't really rationalize with them. They think it looks like candy, and maybe, they just want to eat it."

Did the pandemic affect these reports?

In addition to studying the broad trends in cases recorded between 2017-2021, the researchers also conducted an additional analysis comparing the cases reported during the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 and 2021, against the earlier records.

They found that the number of cannabis edible exposure cases increased significantly in these years, from 1,780 cases in the pre-pandemic years to 5,263 cases during the pandemic – an increase of nearly 300%. The number of children admitted to both critical and non-critical care units also increased significantly in the pandemic years.

“It is possible that COVID-related quarantines and school/daycare closures played a role, with young children having more opportunity for exposure while at home,” the researchers wrote. “Because most of these exposures occur in the child’s home (90.7%), educating caregivers and other adults in the home on how to safely store their cannabis products could significantly reduce exposures in young children.”

Pruitt advises that parents and caregivers should contact a medical professional or bring their child to a medical care center as soon as possible once cannabis exposure is suspected.

“[Caregivers] shouldn’t wait and watch, because kids can change and things can change,” Pruitt said. “You can always call the National Poison Center. That number is 800-222-1222. The National Poison Center can advise you as to what you should do, whether you need to seek medical care. And they’re pretty good about communicating with local emergency departments to let us know that kids might be coming in.”


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