'Legal does not mean safe' — CHEO warns of spike in ER visits for young children consuming cannabis edibles

CHEO emergency room doctors are sounding the alarm following a spike in cases of children and young people ingesting edible cannabis products, with kids as young as three years old ending up in hospital.

With an 85 per cent increase in children and youth visiting CHEO’s emergency department after consuming edibles in recent months, the warning comes at the same time Health Canada issued a similar reminder to parents after several children were hospitalized after mistaking cannabis edibles for regular candy.

Cannabis edibles have been legal in Ontario since October, but both CHEO and Health Canada are now warning people to do more to keep edibles out of the hands of kids.

CHEO doctors noted an 85 per cent increase in children and youth making edible-related ER visits between May and July when compared with the same period last year.

Children under 13 have accounted for more than one-quarter (28 per cent) of the edible-related visits to CHEO’s emergency department during that period. There were zero during the same months in 2019.

CHEO asked parents to be “mindful” and ensure edibles are kept out of reach and locked in a child-proof container.

“We know having a product in a home is automatically a risk factor for children to access and ingest that product, especially when children are at home more,” Bechard said.

Frontline physicians including Bechard and her emergency department colleagues sounded the alarm after noticing the sharp increase in cases involving young children — between three and six years old in a “typical case,” she said.

Citing recent studies from the Canadian Pediatric Society, Bechard said, “it does seem to be a pattern that’s replicating across the nation.”

“Typically these kids are exploring, they’re more mobile, they’re more independent and maybe don’t have as much supervision as they did when they were infants,” Bechard said. “The classic presentation is a child, often between three to six, with a sudden decreased level of consciousness — so the child will look persistently sleepy, parents will have trouble waking them — and this is of course very concerning and they’ll come to the emergency department.”

Sometimes doctors will have the benefit of learning that the child had ingested cannabis, but in other cases where doctors don’t know the cause, it often prompts a number of “invasive and ultimately unnecessary testing,” Bechard said, “So that’s concerning for physicians and patients and families, because it can already be a very stressful event.”

CHEO asked that parents who use edibles educate their children about the dangers of ingesting foreign substances and to mark “off-limit sweets” with distinct labels “so they know to stay away.”

With files from The Canadian Press

Overall emergency department visits due to cannabis ingestion tripled during the same period, and CHEO said that while the numbers are still relatively low, the increase “indicates a worrying trend.”

“It’s definitely concerning,” said Dr. Melanie Bechard, a pediatric emergency physician at CHEO. “We know that children can have acute effects resulting from exposure to cannabis, and they can be relatively mild symptoms — a change in behaviour or drowsiness — but definitely children can also have very severe effects, including slowing their breathing to the point they need to be intubated, or even seizures.

“So in my books even one child who is exposed to cannabis is one child too many.”

The key message, Bechard said, is that “legal does not mean safe.”

“Even though a product is legal and able to be purchased commercially, we still have to be very vigilant about children who can access it,” she said in an interview Thursday.

“That’s what bothers us most as pediatricians — this is a problem with a relatively simple solution. It can be prevented. Cannabis products are already mandated to have child-proof locks, but we know that’s not enough for curious children. It’s important to make sure that children are supervised and these products are kept out of reach, and this is especially important with so many children spending more time at home during the COVID-19 restrictions.”

Now that edibles are more likely to be in the home, Bechard said, there is an increased risk children might find them and mistake them for candy, and with some companies packaging their products to resemble well-known candies, “it is almost impossible for children to notice the difference.”

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