Health Risks of Second Hand Cannabis Smoke You Should Know

Could cannabis smoke be even more harmful than tobacco?
Nicole Richter Nicole Richter / Updated on January 4, 2019

Second Hand Cannabis Smoke Risks

The number of people who smoke cannabis is on the rise. The herb is now legal in 33 states plus D.C. for medicinal use and ten states plus D.C. for recreational use. This surge in popularity follows a wave of research demonstrating the potential benefits of marijuana, but this increase in use has also raised some health concerns.

Cannabis is typically smoked, and as we all know, smoking is bad for you. Many people are now under the impression that smoking weed is more natural and therefore less harmful than smoking tobacco, but this is not necessarily the case. What people seem to forget is that tobacco is a plant too. Yes, it is treated in a way that undoubtedly makes it worse for your lungs, but the fact is that smoking anything is harmful, period.

Now that marijuana is legal in more places than ever, people can smoke freely in public, without the fear of being arrested. The downside of this is that others are going to be exposed to second-hand cannabis smoke, whether they like it or not.

So what are the risks of second-hand marijuana smoke? We take a closer look.

What are the Health Risks of Second Hand Cannabis Smoke?

Like tobacco, smoking pot causes irritation and inflammation in your throat, airways, and lungs. This increases your risk of developing a chronic cough, bronchitis, and other respiratory diseases. Because cannabis smokers tend to draw deeper and hold the smoke in for longer, marijuana could deposit as much as four times as much tar in your lungs as regular cigarettes.

For many people, these risks are outweighed by the potential benefits though. It’s a matter of personal choice. But how about when it comes to the people around you? Are you putting the health of your friends and family in danger when you smoke around them? Unfortunately, research suggests that could be the case.

Smoke is created when cannabis (or anything) is combusted at a high temperature. This combustion causes its compounds to break down and be released into the air. As well as containing THC, the psychoactive component of the plant, marijuana smoke has been found to contain many other chemicals too. Some of these are potentially harmful to human health, and these include:

  • Ammonia
  • Mercury
  • Cadmium
  • Chromium
  • Lead
  • Nickel
  • Arsenic

Of these chemicals, ammonia has the highest levels by far, containing as much as 20 times the ammonia of cigarette smoke. That goes for second hand ‘sidestream’ smoke too, which is obviously not great for anybody sitting close to you while you smoke. And that’s without even considering the effects it could be having on you!

Is Second Hand Cannabis Smoke Really More Dangerous than Tobacco?

It may be difficult to believe that marijuana smoke is worse for your health than tobacco, but one study suggests that it could be, at least in terms of heart health. Researchers exposed rats to the smoke from a joint containing 4.5% THC, a ‘placebo’ joint without THC, and a Marlboro Red cigarette.

The findings showed that after just one minute of exposure, the marijuana caused the rats’ blood vessels to dilate. This effect was observed even in the rats who were exposed to the THC-free cannabis, suggesting that this effect is unrelated to the endocannabinoid system itself.

Both the joints and the cigarette also led to impaired flow-mediated dilation (FMD), a measure which is often used to assess patients at risk of cardiovascular disease. The effects from the cigarette wore off after just 30 minutes, but the effects of marijuana lasted much longer, only wearing off 90 minutes after exposure.

More studies are essential in order to confirm whether these effects are translatable to humans, but it seems that as much as we may not want it to be, second-hand marijuana smoke could be even more dangerous than tobacco.

The Health Risks of Second Hand Cannabis Smoke for Children

The dangers of passive smoking are of particular concern to parents whose children still live at home. Second-hand smoke has been shown to increase children’s risk of asthma, as well as respiratory and ear infections. It is also thought to raise the risk of sudden infant death syndrome in babies.

Although parents are smoking less tobacco now than they were a few years ago, cannabis use among parents has increased. One survey carried out between 2002 and 2015 found that cigarette smoking fell from 27.6% to 20.2% during this period. However, marijuana smoking rose from 11% to 17.4% in parents who also smoked tobacco, and from 2.4% to 4% in those who did not.

Another study of children hospitalized with bronchitis found that those with parents who smoked cannabis tested positive for THC-COOH in their urine. THC-CCOH is a metabolite of THC which can stay in your system for much longer than THC itself. THC exposure in children is particularly worrying, as the compound is known to affect brain development in young people.

Parents who smoke, marijuana or tobacco, are advised to protect their children by taking the following precautions:

  • Never, ever smoke around your children
  • Do not smoke at home, in your car, or other areas where your children might sit or play
  • Wash your face and hands thoroughly, and change your clothes after smoking
  • Wear a hat or headscarf while smoking to protect your hair
  • Consider other methods of using cannabis such as edibles, topicals, or CBD products

Can You Get High from Second Hand Cannabis Smoke?

Many people wonder whether it is possible to get high from second-hand marijuana smoke. Research suggests that you could, although the effects are unlikely to be all that potent. The study conducted at John Hopkins University took six smokers and six non-smokers and put them in a sealed room together. The smokers were given ten joints and allowed to smoke them at will over the course of an hour. The effects on the non-smokers were then measured for 34 hours after the session.

A total of three sessions were conducted. The first used marijuana with a THC content of 5.3% and the second used marijuana with a THC content of 11.3%. Both of these sessions were conducted in an unventilated room.

After the first session, THC-COOH levels increased in the non-smokers’ urine samples, although not significantly. However, after the second session, THC-COOH levels rose to detectable levels of 15ng/mL or more in 10% of the urine samples. After this session, the non-smokers also experienced slight increases in heart rate, mild to moderate sedation, and impaired cognitive function. There was one report of feeling sick, one of anxiety, and one of a racing heart.

The third session was conducted using the 11.3% THC strain, but this time the room was ventilated at a similar level to a home air conditioning system (around 11 air changes per hour). None of the non-smokers experienced any psychoactive effects during this session, and THC-COOH levels fell back to insignificant levels.

These results suggest that second-hand cannabis smoke can indeed get you high, but these effects can be minimized by being in a well-ventilated space.

Second-Hand Smoke from Vaping Cannabis

Vaping has grown more and more popular in recent years and is widely believed to be healthier than smoking weed in the traditional way. When you vape, your bud is exposed to temperatures which are high enough to release the beneficial compounds such as cannabinoids and terpenes, without combusting it enough to burn the more harmful chemicals.

Although it makes perfect sense that this would be better for you and those around you, there is actually very little research regarding the long-term effects of vaping marijuana, as it is such a modern practice.

However, there is at least one study out there that suggests that vaping and other methods such as dabbing are not much better than puffing on a joint when it comes to second-hand smoke. These modern techniques can also produce particles which are harmful to human health, and result in hazardous levels of pollution when practiced indoors. Maybe not as healthy as we first thought!

The Health Risks of Second Hand Cannabis Smoke: Final Thoughts

We would all like to believe that smoking cannabis is a healthier option than tobacco, but sadly this just does not seem to be the case. Although there are certainly some medicinal benefits from smoking weed, and nobody could argue with the fact that it provides a relaxing buzz, there are plenty of risks to consider too.

We’re not here to judge, but second-hand smoke is not just a problem for you but also the people around you. Our best advice is to be considerate. Smoke outdoors or in a well-ventilated area, and consider other methods of consumption indoors, especially if you have kids.

Article Sources:
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