Between September and December of 2018, there were 16 cases of “serious adverse events” in children and young people related to recreational cannabis, according to new data from the Canadian Paediatric Surveillance Program.
The 16 are in two distinct groups – 10 cases of “unintentional exposure,” essentially young children who ingested cannabis-laced products such as gummy bears and brownies, and six cases of “intentional exposure,” teenagers who were experimenting with pot and had seriously bad experiences.
Those numbers are small but only include young people who needed critical care such as a respirator. They don’t include ER visits or calls to poison-control hotlines.
The important take-home message here is: If you have cannabis in the house – regardless of what form it’s in, smokable, edible, drinkable, medicinal – keep it out of reach of children, and probably under lock-and-key, especially if it looks like candy or dessert.
The new surveillance data should serve as a reminder that a lot of young people suffer serious harm due to “unintentional exposure” to poisonous products in the home.
In the United States, there are more than 2.1 million cases of poisoning reported annually, and almost half of them in children under the age of 6.
That suggests about 100,000 young children are poisoned each year in Canada. (We do a poor job of data collection.)
The Ontario Poison Centre, however, compiles a list of the leading causes of poisoning in that province. The results may surprise many parents.
No. 1 on the list of dangers are pain relievers, followed by cleaning products and cosmetics. (Cannabis is not in the top 10.)
Over-the-counter drugs such as Aspirin, Tylenol and their variants are used commonly, and are often left in bathrooms or kitchens. They are the leading cause of poisoning deaths in children, and can cause disabling damage to the brain, liver or kidneys.
Ingesting a bottle of Tylenol – about 50 pills – will kill an adult; it takes only a fraction of that to kill a child. Prescription and illicit painkillers are even more dangerous; half a tablet of an opioid painkiller such as hydrocodone can kill a child.
Don’t be lulled by child-resistant packaging. Studies show that one in five preschoolers can open “child-proof” bottles.
Cleaning products such as bleach, furniture polish and cleaners are a major source of poisoning. To a child, a bottle of Lemon Pledge can look, smell and taste like lemonade.
Cosmetics are an oft-unrecognized danger in the home. Just last week, a study in the journal Clinical Pediatrics found that every two hours a child ends up in the ER after ingesting cosmetics. Nail polish remover and hair straightening products are particularly dangerous because they contain toxic and caustic chemicals.
But remember, most anything can be toxic – alcohol, vitamins, antihistamines, antidepressants, cough syrup, button batteries, shampoo, perfume, etc.
It’s the dose that makes the poison and, because children are small, even tiny doses can be harmful.
Some people may read this and say to themselves: Why would a child do something like eat a bag of THC-laden gummies, drink Javex, or take big mouthfuls of skin cream?
The reality is that when something looks like candy, or smells good, or looks like another food (skin cream looks like yogurt), children – and curious toddlers especially – will put it in their mouths. The figures show the peak age for poisonings is two. The terrible twos.
The new cannabis data were collected at an interesting juncture, just before and just after the legalization of recreational cannabis (Oct. 17, 2018). However, we have no idea if legalization had an impact because data from the prohibition era does not exist.
It’s noteworthy, too, that almost all the cases involved edibles, which won’t be legal until October, but are already widely consumed.
So, yes, let’s pay attention to the unintended consequences of cannabis legalization, especially the risks of edibles to children.
But, more important, let’s not forget the lifesaving benefits of simple measures such as safe storage.
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