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These grown-up goods are no good for kids

Dr. Garrard has seen exposure calls increase as kids get into grown-up goods.

Photo: Joshua Huston


As e-cigarettes and marijuana-infused food products gain popularity among adult consumers, children who get their hands on them are becoming sickened or even poisoned; the Washington Poison Center reported a substantial increase in call volume this year for children made ill by these products.

E-cigarettes and marijuana-infused food products — commonly called medibles — present a number of health risks for children. Each affects kids of drastically different ages: toddlers are more likely to be affected by e-cigarettes while teens are more likely to be affected by medibles.

Dr. Alexander Garrard, clinical managing director of the Washington Poison Center, says that his organization has seen a staggering increase in e-cigarette exposure calls since the devices hit the market, and that 80 percent of these calls were for children between the ages of 1 and 3.

According to Dr. Garrard, toddlers are disproportionately sickened by e-cigarettes because the liquid nicotine used to fill the devices usually comes in dropper bottles that small children can easily open, covering themselves in the liquid.

“They’ll hold it, squeeze it in their mouth; we’ve had some [kids] put it in their eyes,” Garrard says. “We don’t find that we’re getting a lot of kids that are actually huffing on [an e-cigarette] — it’s the dropper that is just so attractive. Child-resistant packaging is not standard in the industry, and the challenge with that is that you have a bunch of these vials that really can just be opened up."

When children ingest liquid nicotine, Garrard says, they generally experience minor symptoms like nausea, vomiting and upset stomachs. But, he says, nicotine has what’s called a dose-response relationship: the more you ingest, the more toxic it becomes. At higher doses, children can experience agitation, increased heart rate, seizures, coma and even death.

Though the WAPC hasn’t reported any e-cigarette deaths in children, Garrard sees the devices as particularly dangerous because, paradoxically, they’re perceived as safer than cigarettes. Many parents and caregivers, he says, “don’t see liquid nicotine as a poison,” but rather, “‘just the liquid that goes in my e-cigarette.’”

While toddlers are accidentally getting into liquid nicotine, teens are intentionally consuming medibles without realizing that they’re ingesting potentially dangerous amounts of marijuana. Kids between 13 and 19 made up the majority of marijuana exposure calls to the WAPC this year.

The issue, Garrard says, is that many teens ingest medibles thinking they’ll feel effects immediately, and when they don’t, they consume more. Some teens end up ingesting massive doses of marijuana — sometimes 10 times the standard therapeutic dose — and technically overdose on the drug, leading to intense physical and emotional side effects that don’t appear at lower doses. Garrard says teens have been admitted to emergency rooms in agitated or lethargic states, sometimes experiencing a racing heart, hallucinations or delirium. 

Garrard points to a few causes of these accidental overdoses: one is a lack of unit-dose packaging on marijuana products. Another is the fact that, despite a recent proliferation of marijuana retail stores in Washington state, most of the medibles teens consume are obtained from medical marijuana dispensaries where product potency can vary wildly.

Garrard notes that medical marijuana is supposed to contain less THC (marijuana’s psychoactive component) and more CBD (marijuana’s analgesic component), but because of a lack of dispensary regulation, it’s difficult to gauge the amount of THC in any given food item.

Unlike those exposed to liquid nicotine, most of the children who consume too much marijuana end up in the hospital. A majority of kids are treated, evaluated, then released from the hospital, but a small portion are admitted to the intensive care unit for more serious neuropsychiatric symptoms, says Garrard.

And depending on when children ingest marijuana, it can affect their cognition, long-term memory, or fine motor skills. “Kids are not just small versions of adults,” Garrard reminds us. “How they handle medications, process them, [and] how they respond to these drugs is going to be very different from adults.”

So what’s to be done about children getting their hands on these products? Garrard strongly encourages parents to call the WAPC’s helpline — (800) 222-1222 — in case of suspected poisoning: the line is anonymous, free, confidential and runs 24/7.

With regards to prevention, Garrard urges parents to use their common sense in keeping these products out of their kids’ hands, but also stresses that accidents happen. “Just because your child gets into [a medible] doesn’t mean you’re a bad parent,” Garrard says. “Accidental unsupervised ingestions happen.” The onus of prevention falls on multiple parties, he says: on the e-cigarette and marijuana industries to create better packaging, as well as on parents to be vigilant about storage and their own use. Garrard urges parents to be sensitive to when and where they’re using e-cigarettes or ingesting medibles.

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