It’s no secret that the past few centuries have taken a serious toll on the environmental state of the planet. Our oceans are full of plastic, air pollution impacts thousands of people each year and, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), there are thousands of contaminated land sites throughout the U.S. alone.
Hemp might be one of the solutions. Due to a process known as phytoremediation, hemp could offer aid to a planet that is in serious peril. But just how can hemp help clean up the planet?
Hemp Phytoremediation 101: What is Phytoremediation and How Does It Work?
Before we delve deeper into hemp phytoremediation, it’s important to understand exactly what phytoremediation is and how it works.
Defined as “the use of living green plants for the removal, degradation and containment of contaminants in soil, surface waters and groundwaters,” phytoremediation is a living, natural way to help clean up the environment.
Hemp is but one of several plants that are capable of the fascinating process of phytoremediation. Some of these include Indian mustard, willow trees, poplar trees and sunflowers.
Members of the mustard family are most frequently used for phytoremediation, but hemp is considered one of the best plants to use. Why? For one, hemp has a relatively deep root system. For another, it’s typically unaffected by any toxins accumulated from both soil and air.
There are several different forms of phytoremediation. These include:
- Phytoextraction: The process of removing metals or organics from the soil through a plant’s root system, where they then accumulate in the biomass of the plant.
- Phytodegradation: Using plants to uptake, store and degrade toxic pollutants.
- Phytostabilization: The reduction of a contaminant’s mobility by immobilizing or binding them to the soil medium.
- Phytovolatilization: Using plants to take pollutants from the growth medium, then transform them and release them into the environment.
The most widespread practices of phytoremediation include phytoextraction and phytodegradation, which use specific plants that are grown in contaminated soils.
A Brief History of Hemp Phytoremediation
By far, one of the most momentous disasters in human history was the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster in April 1986. It’s estimated that some 400 times more radioactive material was released from Chernobyl than by the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, causing an environmental impact unlike anything the world had ever seen.
Four years after the blast, the environmental situation at Chernobyl was assessed by the International Atomic Energy Agency. It was discovered that, in a 30km radius around the disaster site, there were significantly higher concentrations of several toxic metals in the soil and tissues of plants and animals, including plutonium, lead, cesium-137 and strontium-90.
To help diminish the substantial levels of soil contamination, scientists turned to nature for help by utilizing beneficial plants in an effort to clean up the disastrous concentrations of contamination. Two of the most significant crops they planted? Sunflowers and hemp.
Research scientist Slavic Dushenkov of Phytotech, the company responsible for the hemp planting at Chernobyl, said, “Hemp is proving to be one of the best phytoremediative plants we could find.”
The Chernobyl disaster isn’t the only case where hemp phytoremediation proved to be extremely effective in removing toxic chemicals from contaminated soil. In Italy, hemp phytoremediation made headlines when it was used by farmers to clean up soil contaminated with dioxin from a nearby steel plant.
Hemp Phytoremediation for Clean Land and Air
Hemp phytoremediation could help sweep the planet clean of some of the devastating pollution that has become an unfortunate reality. The benefits of hemp phytoremediation can offer polluted land and air a clean break they both desperately need.
Hemp and Clean Soil
A 2003 study discovered that hemp has the ability to soak up soil contaminants such as nickel, cadmium and chromium and that the absorption of such heavy metals did little to alter the plant’s physical form and external structure.
While most people don’t give it much thought, land contamination is a serious problem. The EPA says land contamination can be caused by a number of different factors, including “intended, accidental or naturally occurring activities and events such as manufacturing, mineral extraction, abandonment of mines, national defense activities, waste disposal, accidental spills, illegal dumping, leaking underground storage tanks, hurricanes, floods, pesticide use and fertilizer application.”
While some contaminated sites pose little threat to human health, other sites are of more concern. When they’re not properly managed, humans and animals may be exposed to potentially dangerous chemicals that could lead to chronic or acute health concerns.
Could hemp phytoremediation be the answer to clean up thousands of acres of contaminated land? It just might.
Hemp and Clean Air
Some say hemp is the ideal carbon sink. Why? The ancient plant has been scientifically proven to absorb more CO2 than any other commercial crop that exists. According to National Geographic, carbon dioxide levels are at a record high, which is one of the leading factors driving climate change.
During the process of photosynthesis, hemp removes CO2 from the air and converts it to carbohydrates that help develop the plant’s structure. When the process is complete, oxygen is a byproduct that is released back into the atmosphere.
Trees do something very similar, but take much longer to grow than hemp. Hemp can also be grown in virtually any type of soil, needs little water and can be grown without pesticides or fertilizers, making hemp an ideal choice for reducing the effects of climate change.
Where Hemp for CBD is Grown is Important
While hemp phytoremediation could do wonders to clean up the planet, it’s important to understand that the contaminants the plant absorbs don’t magically disappear altogether. Instead, they contaminate the plant itself. Once hemp is used for phytoremediation, it should not be used to produce products like food or CBD.
It’s important that hemp grown for CBD is cultivated in the cleanest environment possible. A contaminated hemp plant will only produce contaminated hemp products.
For those who seek the wellness benefits of hemp-derived products, make sure you are only purchasing CBD that has been lab tested for the presence of pesticides, heavy metals and other unwanted compounds.
As beneficial as phytoremediation might be for the environment, it could have the opposite effect on human health. When consumers turn to CBD, they’re doing so because of its potential benefits. Any heavy metals or soil contaminants present where the hemp was grown can detract from these benefits.
Knowing where the hemp cultivated to produce your CBD is vital.
Hemp Phytoremediation for a Brighter Planetary Future
Hemp is truly one of the most versatile plants that exists. Not only can it be made into a plethora of different products, but it could help clean up the natural environment from man-made destruction.
Is hemp phytoremediation the answer we need to help clean up the planet and restore its natural balance? It just might be.
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Todd Smith is Joy Organics Chief Partnerships Officer and Co-founder. Before Joy Organics, he worked in the wellness and nutritional industry for over three decades and helped generate over 1 billion dollars in supplement sales. He has applied that knowledge and experience to empower over 1000 businesses through Joy Organics’ partnership programs. Todd is also the author of a book, podcast, and blog titled Little Things Matter.