It’s difficult to know how common secondhand marijuana smoke exposure is, most notably because it is illegal in many places. A 2015 study set out to examine this question by questioning people at two southeastern universities. Researchers found that:
In a study of 43 children, age 1 month to 2 years, who were admitted to hospitals in Colorado from 2013 to 2015 for bronchiolitis, urine samples tested for marijuana metabolites revealed that 16% of the children had a detectable level of exposure to secondhand marijuana smoke. Another study that provided a preliminary look at health outcomes of children living in homes where marijuana is used showed a “relatively strong. association. between indoor cannabis smoking and adverse health outcomes in children” indicating a significant need for further study.
Sanja Jelic, MD is board-certified in pulmonary disease, sleep medicine, critical care medicine, and internal medicine. She is an assistant professor and attending physician at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York, NY .
Of course, the next step is determining the significance of reduced blood vessel function, something which has been linked to atherosclerosis and heart attacks.
In one study, levels of ammonia were 20 times higher in secondhand marijuana smoke than secondhand tobacco smoke. Levels of hydrogen cyanide and aromatic amines were three times to five times higher in secondhand marijuana smoke than secondhand tobacco smoke. And like tobacco smoke, marijuana contains a number of carcinogens (compounds known to cause cancer) such as benzene, cadmium, nickel, and more.
While often we look at studies like this thinking that a lot of smoke over an extended period of time is to be most feared, a 2016 study made this approach questionable. It was found that even one minute of secondhand marijuana smoke could impair vascular endothelial function in rats. Even though we don’t know whether these results on rats reflect what happens in humans, knowing that vascular endothelial dysfunction underlies a leading killer in the U.S. (endothelial dysfunction leading to heart attacks), this information is worth investigating further.
Certainly, the findings of changes in blood vessels with secondhand marijuana smoke raises concern about the public health impact of exposure, but a thorough understanding of risks, as well as preventive measures that should be taken, is lacking at the current time.
Again, it must be noted that studies looking at the potential impact of secondhand marijuana smoke are limited. A 2019 evaluation looked at the effect of secondhand marijuana smoke on the health of police officers working at open-air stadium events. Findings included detectable levels of THC in personal and area air samples, the presence of THC in the urine of 34 percent (but negative blood tests), and symptoms potentially attributable to the exposure including dry, red eyes, dry mouth, headache, and coughing. The officers, however, did not experience a “high” related to the exposure.
This research looked at the effect of secondhand marijuana smoke on blood vessels, albeit in rodents. Rats that were exposed to secondhand marijuana smoke had a 70 percent reduction in blood vessel function. (These results were the same for rats exposed to marijuana smoke containing THC as those not, so it was considered likely that THC alone wasn’t the culprit.)
How does secondhand marijuana smoke exposure affect the health of nearby non-pot smokers, and what impact does this have on drug testing?
Studies in the 1980s showed that such “social exposure” to pot smoke could trigger positive drug tests for cannabis’ main psychoactive ingredient, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). But such studies had several limitations. They used marijuana that had much lower potency than the pot available today and they failed to account for normal levels of ventilation in rooms. They also did not examine how people may feel or behave after such exposures.
People who are exposed to secondhand marijuana smoke may feel a bit of the “high” that comes with using the drug, a new study finds. They may also feel unable to think clearly, and they may even have detectable levels of the drug in their urine or blood. But all of this happens only if they are exposed to marijuana smoke under severely unventilated conditions, the study found.
But the unventilated room is not representative of most real-life situations, the researchers said. “We modeled the worst-case scenario,” Herrmann said. “You are in an enclosed room for an hour with 15 grams of cannabis being smoked.”
The researchers gave each of the six smokers 10 marijuana cigarettes, each containing 1 gram of high-potency weed, and instructed them to smoke at their leisure for the hour while the six non-smokers sat by their side in the chamber.
“Our results are pretty consistent with what we expected,” Herrmann said. The new findings confirm “it’s really hard to get a positive [drug test result] from passive smoke unless you’re in an extreme scenario,” he said.
In the first study of its kind, Herrmann’s team recruited about 20 healthy people between the ages of 18 and 45, including some who smoked marijuana and some who didn’t use the drug. The researchers tested the participants’ blood, saliva, urine and hair samples for cannabis biomarkers, and then asked six smokers and six nonsmokers to relax in a Plexiglas and aluminum smoke chamber about the size of a dorm room. Participants underwent two separate sessions, each an hour long.
Under the unventilated, “hot box” condition, the nonsmokers showed slight impairments on cognitive tests, reported feeling high, and had detectable levels of THC in their blood and urine for up to 22 hours post-exposure. Those in the ventilated condition had much lower levels of THC in their blood, did not feel impaired or high, and did not test positive for THC in their urine.
Cannabis is the world’s most commonly used illicit drug. It is often smoked in small, enclosed spaces with poor ventilation, according to the study.
“If you’re going to breathe in enough passive cannabis smoke to feel high and potentially be slightly impaired, you could fail a drug test,” said Evan S. Herrmann, the study’s lead author and postdoctoral fellow in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. “But this only happens under a very extreme situation.”
People who breathe in a lot of secondhand marijuana smoke could test positive on a drug test, a new study finds.