From 2006-2013, the rate of marijuana exposure in the US among children younger than 6 rose by 147.5%, according the results of a new study conducted by researchers at Nationwide Children’s Hospital.

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Debates on the legalization of marijuana often focus on its effects on adult health. The authors of a new study believe the risk to young children should also be considered.

In states that legalized medical marijuana use, the researchers found that the rate of exposure increased by almost 610%.

The study, published in Clinical Pediatrics, examines rates of marijuana exposure among children aged 5 and younger from 2000-2013. The researchers obtained data from the National Poison Data System, a comprehensive database comprised of case data continually uploaded from Poison Control Centers across the US.

During the period examined by the study, there was a total of 1,969 marijuana exposures among children aged younger than 6, an exposure rate of 5.9 per million children. The average age of children exposed to marijuana in the study was 1.81 years. Over 75% of the children exposed to marijuana were younger than 3 years of age.

The majority of children (75%) were exposed to marijuana through ingesting it. Co-author Henry Spiller, a toxicologist and director of the Central Ohio Poison Center at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, believes this may reflect how marijuana is available to children in the home.

“The high percentage of ingestions may be related to the popularity of marijuana brownies, cookies and other foods,” he suggests. “Very young children explore their environments by putting items in their mouths, and foods such as brownies and cookies are attractive.”

Most exposures to marijuana led to only minor clinical effects, although a number of children experienced severe symptoms such as seizures, decreased breathing and coma. The researchers believe that some of these severe effects may be attributable to the higher levels of THC – the main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana – that are found in marijuana food products.

A total of 18.5% of marijuana exposures resulted in admission to a health care facility, although the researchers state that these admissions were likely to be not only due to the clinical effects of the exposures. A need to investigate further the circumstances that led to marijuana exposure in the home may have contributed.

Rates of exposure were higher in states that had legalized marijuana from 2000-2013, with the rate of exposure increasing by almost 16% in these states per year after legalization. The researchers noted a significant increase in exposure rates in the specific year that marijuana became legalized in each of these states.

Although a total of 1,969 cases of children aged 5 years and younger over the study period is considered to be a small number of cases being reported, senior author Dr. Gary Smith believes that the manner in which rates have increased in states legalizing marijuana is cause for concern.

“Any state considering marijuana legalization needs to include child protections in its laws from the very beginning,” says Dr. Smith, also director of the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children’s. “Child safety must be part of the discussion when a state is considering legalization of marijuana.”

The researchers recommend that measures used to protect children from medicines and dangerous household chemicals should also be used for commercially-available marijuana products. These include child-resistant packaging and containers that are not see-through.

Precautions must also be taken with homemade products. If there are any in the home, the researchers recommend keeping them out of sight and out of reach of children, preferably locked away in a cabinet.

“Because more states are likely to pass legislation legalizing medical and recreational use of marijuana, increased efforts to establish child-focused safety requirements regarding packaging of commercially sold marijuana products are needed to help prevent more children from being exposed to this schedule I substance,” the authors conclude.

Recently, Medical News Today reported on a study suggesting that marijuana use among young boys may stunt growth and trigger earlier puberty.