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Exposure to marijuana smoke may increase risk of children's respiratory infections

As more states legalize the drug, experts are worried about the long-term health implications for kids

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Photo (c) Peter Dazeley - Getty Images
A new study conducted by researchers from the Wake Forest School of Medicine and Children’s Hospital Colorado explored the health risks associated with children’s exposure to marijuana. According to their findings, kids exposed to secondhand marijuana smoke may have an increased risk for respiratory infections. 

“The negative impact that exposure to secondhand tobacco smoke can have on children’s health has been extensively studied but the impact of secondhand marijuana smoke on young children is unclear,” said researcher Adam Johnson. 

“Our findings identify the potential for increased respiratory infections in children exposed to secondhand marijuana smoke. This could have significant health care implications as more states in the U.S.A. move towards legalizing recreational marijuana use.”  

Health risks of marijuana exposure

For the study, the researchers analyzed survey responses from nearly 1,500 parents and caregivers living in Colorado -- a state where marijuana is legal for both medical and recreational purposes. All of the parents involved in the study had a child under 12 years old visit the emergency room between 2015 and 2017. They answered questions about their children’s medical histories and their marijuana and tobacco use, including where they typically use the drugs and their children’s level of exposure. 

Roughly 10% of the caregivers involved in the study reported using marijuana on a regular basis, compared to more than 19% of parents who reported regularly smoking tobacco. Ultimately, this impacted their children’s health. Parents who smoked marijuana reported that their children experienced viral respiratory infections more frequently than parents who didn’t smoke. 

However, the researchers also found that side effects that are typically tied to primary marijuana use, including asthma flare-ups or ear infections, weren’t impacted by secondhand exposure to marijuana. Additionally, none of the parents reported an uptick in trips to the emergency room as a result of exposure to marijuana smoke. 

While the researchers plan to do more work in this area, especially in areas where marijuana isn’t legal, they hope that these initial findings highlight some of the risks associated with exposing children to secondhand marijuana smoke. 

“Our findings highlight the prevalence of marijuana use among parents and caregivers and indicate which children may be more likely to be exposed to secondhand marijuana smoke in a U.S. state where recreational and medical marijuana use is legal,” said Johnson. “These findings could be used to help target and shape public health messaging aimed at parents and caregivers in order to raise awareness of the potential negative impacts that secondhand marijuana smoke exposure can have on children’s health.” 

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