Marijuana Smokers, Particularly Younger Users, Are At Greater Risk Of Developing Fungal Infections

'Although these infections were uncommon, they can result in substantial illness and even death,' the CDC warns.

a user smokes cannabis
Jeff Vinnick / Getty Images

'Although these infections were uncommon, they can result in substantial illness and even death,' the CDC warns.

Marijuana users are at an elevated risk of developing a fatal fungal infection, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) warned on Wednesday. As Insider reported, younger users and users with compromised immune systems are particularly at risk.

For a while now, researchers have suspected that marijuana sold legally at dispensaries in places such as Colorado and California could be contaminated with pesticides or mold. Further, users who grow their own cannabis at home may grow a plant, however inadvertently, that has fungus or mold on it. The users then burn that plant matter and ingest it into their lungs, potentially introducing a pathogen into their bodies.

In a report issued on Wednesday, the CDC released its findings of a study that looked into that possibility. Analyzing the data from about 27 million people, researchers looked for any sign of a connection between cannabis use and the development of fungal infections.

The data did, in fact, reveal a connection. Specifically, of the 50,000 people who used cannabis in 2016, 40 of them developed a fungal infection. That’s only.07 percent of them, but in comparison to the rest of the non-cannabis-smoking population, the numbers are staggering. That’s because, among the 21 million test subjects who don’t smoke marijuana in 2016, 6,294, or.02 percent of them developed fungal infections.

VANCOUVER, BC - JUNE 20: Rodrigo Acevedo Casino looks on as Anna Bolechowska smokes marijuana with a bong at the New Amsterdam Cafe June 20, 2018 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has announced recreational pot will be legal as of October 17 in Canada. (Photo by Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images)
  Jeff Vinnick / Getty Images

Though the numbers of both groups are small, they do reveal that cannabis users appear 3.5 times more likely to develop fungal infections. What’s more, fungal infections can be deadly, particularly in people with compromised immune systems.

That was enough to prompt the CDC to issue a warning.

“In this large commercially insured population in the United States, cannabis use was associated
with a higher prevalence of certain fungal infections. Although these infections were uncommon, they can result in substantial illness and even death, particularly in immunocompromised persons,” the agency notes.

In otherwise healthy people, fungal infections rarely produce more than an itchy rash, or sometimes allergies or asthma. But for people with compromised immune systems, such as due to having HIV or from having undergone chemotherapy, fungal infections can cause meningitis, pneumonia, and sometimes even death.

In the group of cannabis users in the study who were found to have developed fungal infections, 40 percent were already immunocompromised. Further, younger cannabis users were found to be more susceptible to fungal infections that older, non-cannabis users.

Since state-level marijuana programs operate outside of federal law, there is no nationwide system in place for testing retail cannabis for mold, pesticides, or other adulterants. Instead, retailers rely on their own internal protocols, such as contracting outside labs to test their products.

Donald Land, the chief scientific consultant at cannabis and tech firm Steep Hill, suggests that cannabis customers ask their “budtenders” for documentation that the product they’re buying has been tested.