As smoking cigarettes assumes a more and more repellant social taboo, marijuana is shedding its own with its legalization in eight states and counting. This has widely led to the misconception that exposing kids to the legally sanctioned drug — even just by proximity — is relatively risk-free. But a new study out of Colorado found that smoking pot around kids is bad for their health, just as second- and thirdhand tobacco smoke can lead to adverse health effects in children in smoke-saturated environments. In fact, the study of 43 children in a state that's a marijuana legalization pioneer found that they do absorb the chemicals from the marijuana smoke they may breathe in both inadvertently and inevitably if the adults in their lives are lighting up around them.
According to NPR, the relatively limited study included subjects between one month and 2 years old, all of whom had been hospitalized for bronchitis. Testing of their urine revealed that 75 percent of the samples of children who had been around pot use tested positive for marijuana metabolites — a jump from 16 percent of the overall samples.
"Our hypothesis is that it is not good for kids," Dr. Karen Wilson, a pediatrician at Mount Sinai in New York and the lead author of the study, told NPR. "We strongly believe that once we do the research to document secondhand marijuana exposure that we will see there is a negative effect on children."
While the emerging science behind the effects of pot smoke exposure on kids is murky (hindered by the difficulties of studying it because possession is still a federal offense), it's common knowledge that smoking cigarettes around the youngest members of our society is a bad idea. According to the Centers for Disease Control, exposure to secondhand smoke can cause sudden infant death syndrome, frequent and severe asthma attacks, and respiratory and ear infections in children. Additionally, the CDC reports that smoking during pregnancy is the culprit behind about 1,000 infant deaths each year.
And it's not just direct exposure that can cause serious problems. A 2010 study found that the nicotine in the thirdhand smoke from cigarettes — defined by NBC News as the residue from the secondhand smoke that smokers exhale — reacts with other chemicals in the air to create dangerous cancer-causing ones. This happens after surfaces like walls, floors, carpeting, drapes, and furniture absorb the smoke, and because babies and toddlers are most likely to come into contact with the affected carpet and clothes, researchers believe they may be at the greatest risk.
And, as pulmonologist Dr. David Beuther told NPR, there is no evidence to suggest that exposure to pot smoke is any safer for children. He believes that proximity to secondhand marijuana smoke can mean an increased likelihood of viral infections, asthma, and other respiratory illnesses, not to mention higher chances of developing chronic conditions like heart disease and stroke when they get older. And the best way to protect them is to eliminate the source all together, as Beuther told NPR:
Get it out of the house and away from your baby. Not in the car, not in the home. If someone wants to smoke marijuana, they need to do it outside, far away from your baby or your child, because at this point we believe the adverse health effects are probably as bad as secondhand cigarette smoke.
Shielding children from pot can become more challenging as it becomes more and more ubiquitous and socially acceptable, though. Live Science reported in 2015 that, between 2003 and 2013, marijuana exposure in children under 6 spiked dramatically — but the kids were consuming the drug when it was present in baked goods rather than inhaling it. Regardless, this uptick paralleled legalization patterns.
Clearly, new safeguards need to accompany new marijuana laws in order to keep the country's children protected.