Summers: Simple steps to reduce risk of cannabis poisoning in children

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Children may not be the first group you think of when considering the health risks of edible cannabis products. However, the danger of children being poisoned by accidentally consuming these products has increased significantly since they were legalized for sale in Ontario.

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In January 2022, researchers from the Hospital for Sick Children, Ottawa Hospital, the University of Ottawa, Bruyère Research Institute and the Canadian Centre for Substance Use and Addiction looked at unintentional cannabis exposures in children in Ontario. They reviewed provincial emergency department data for children during three periods: before cannabis legalization, after initial legalization in 2018 and following the approval of edible cannabis product sales in January 2020.

The study showed cannabis-related emergency department visits by children, and those resulting in hospitalization, increased significantly after cannabis edibles were legalized. In fact, between the pre- and post-legalization periods, they noted a more than 400 per cent increase in hospital visits for unintentional cannabis ingestion and a significant increase in intensive care admissions for children younger than 12. While similar post-legalization figures aren’t available for London and Middlesex County, Public Health Ontario data that predates legalization shows cannabis-related emergency department visits in our region more than doubled those seen elsewhere in Ontario between 2013 and 2018.

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It is important to draw attention to this public health concern, especially during poison prevention week, which starts Sunday and runs until March 25th.

Children who unknowingly eat cannabis-containing products, such as cookies, gummy candies, and drinks, can be put at risk of serious harm due to their smaller body sizes and differences in metabolism. The signs and symptoms of cannabis poisoning can vary from mild to severe; they may show up hours after products have been consumed and can last up to 12 hours. Children are also in danger of cannabis poisoning because illegal products continue to be sold online and from unauthorized retailers in Ontario.

Regulated cannabis products sold in Canada must meet federal requirements, including strict testing, limits on how much THC they contain, child-resistant and plain packaging, and standardized labelling to reduce access and appeal to children. Despite these health-protective regulations, illegal cannabis edibles are often packaged to look like popular candy brands and can contain much more THC than allowed by Health Canada, increasing the danger for kids.

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In addition to illegal products, home-baked goods containing cannabis can present risks for children and need to be prepared and stored with caution. Because they don’t look different from items baked without cannabis, young children can easily mistake them as being safe to eat. While any cannabis consumed by children can cause harm, the good news is unintentional poisonings can be prevented.

Cannabis infused chocolate THC lollipops for medical and recreational consumption. (Getty Images)
Cannabis infused chocolate THC lollipops for medical and recreational consumption. (Getty Images)

Purchase cannabis edibles from authorized provincial retailers. The products they sell will be in plain, child-resistant packages that contain no more than 10 mg of THC.

Store cannabis products in locked, labeled boxes, out of children’s reach, away from regular food and drinks.

Know the symptoms of cannabis poisoning, including anxiety, confusion, sleepiness, lack of coordination, slurred speech, vomiting, slowed or difficulty breathing, seizures, and unconsciousness.

And have an emergency plan. If your child shows any symptoms and you suspect they have ingested cannabis, take them to an emergency department or call 9-1-1 if immediate help is needed.

We can decrease the risks and harms of cannabis poisoning in children by taking simple and proactive steps. Learn more about this important health issue by visiting the Middlesex-London Health Unit or Ontario Poison Centre websites. And let’s keep our children safe.

Alex Summers is the medical officer of health with the Middlesex-London Health Unit

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