More young children are getting sick from inadvertently eating marijuana edibles, according to a study published Tuesday in the journal Pediatrics.
Calls to poison control centers about kids 5 and under consuming edibles containing THC rose from 207 in 2017 to 3,054 in 2021 — a 1,375% increase, according to the study. THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, is the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana.
Nearly all of the children — about 97% — found the edibles at home.
The findings were based on more than 7,000 pediatric cases reported to the National Poison Data System, a database that tracks reports of poisonings.
The combination of more states’ legalizing recreational marijuana and the coronavirus pandemic, which meant more children were staying at home, most likely drove the increase, said a co-author of the study, Dr. Antonia Nemanich, an assistant professor of emergency medicine and toxicology at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.
Edibles are often packaged to look like candy or cookies, and kids, unaware of the risk they pose, can sometimes eat several in a single sitting, Nemanich said.
“They don’t know what it is,” she said, “and they don’t know when to stop.”
A little over half of the reports concerned 2- and 3-year-olds, followed by 4-year-olds (18%), 1-year-olds (15%) and 5-year-olds (13%), the study found. Infants accounted for 1.9% of the calls.
Eating too much can lead to serious health problems in young children, including confusion, hallucinations, fast heart rate and vomiting, experts said. In severe cases, children can experience trouble breathing or even comas. The severity usually depends on children’s size and age and how much cannabis they’ve consumed.
“It can be really concerning for the physicians treating them,” Nemanich said.
Nearly a quarter of the children were admitted to the hospital, 8.1% of whom who needed intensive care, the study found. No deaths were reported.
Dr. Sam Wang, an emergency medicine physician and pediatrician at Children’s Hospital Colorado, said the study reflects what he is seeing in his hospital.
Wang said the majority of the cases at the Colorado hospital have been "pretty mild," with children often experiencing sleepiness or loss of balance, although he has seen, in rare instances, children who needed to be put on ventilators to help with breathing or children who had fallen into comas. Wang wasn't involved with the study.
Similar observations have been noted in Philadelphia.
"I think the pattern that we’re seeing is well-represented by this study," said Dr. Kevin Osterhoudt, the medical director of the poison control center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. "Emergency physicians all across the country have been recognizing what they believe to be a sharp increase in both young children and teenagers showing up to emergency departments for THC intoxication.”
Some manufacturers have started to increase the dosage of THC in their edible products, said Osterhoudt, who wasn't involved with the research. That could lead to an even greater rise in the number of children who get sick.
A typical edible can contain around 100 milligrams, he said, but even adults often start with about one-tenth of that. In some states, especially those where recreational marijuana isn't legal and isn't regulated, products can contain as much as 500 mg of THC, he added.
Wang called for regulation of how marijuana manufacturers can advertise their products, including regulations that ensure the advertising doesn't appeal to children.
Parents can protect their children by keeping the edibles out of sight, either behind locked doors or high up on shelves, Nemanich said.
"There's no reason that people can't enjoy these products," she said. "We just want kids to be safe."
Osterhoudt went a step further: "The safest thing for a parent of young children to do would be not to bring edible THC products into their homes."