Cleaning Our Toxic World with Hemp

Learn how this wonder plant has removed harmful chemicals from Chernobyl and other poisonous sites around the globe.

Photo by Getty Images/Aleksander_Kravitsov

Phytoremediation. It’s the process of using plants to clean soil that we’ve polluted with heavy metals or radioactive material. The United Nations declared phytoremediation to be a “low-cost, solar-energy-driven cleanup technique” and “useful for treating a wide variety of environmental contaminants.”

For cleansing the soil, hemp makes an excellent choice because of its high biomass, long roots, and short life cycle. Ilya Raskin, one of the early pioneers of phytoremediation — in fact, he coined the term in his 1991 Superfund grant proposal — used hemp in some of his earliest work. With the Ukrainian Academy of Agrarian Sciences and his firm, Phytotech, Raskin planted hemp around Chernobyl to remove caesium-137 from the radioactive soil. This early effort led to a host of research around the world to study how hemp decontaminates soil.

In 2001, a team of German researchers found that hemp grew just fine in soil containing the poisonous heavy metal cadmium. When the hemp plants matured, the highest concentrations of cadmium were found to have accumulated in the leaves, and the plants could then be burned in a controlled manner to safely remove the contaminant. This represented a potentially more cost-effective option for low-level contamination sites than the usual pricey process of digging all the soil out of the ground and hauling it off.

Photo by Adobe Stock/creativefamily

The next year, a group in Hawaii demonstrated the ability of hemp plants to remove two polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), chrysene and benzo[a]pyrene, from the soil. In 2004, a Bulgarian team planted hemp at various distances from Non-Ferrous Metal Works near Plovdiv. They found that the plants acted as bioaccumulators that sucked up the heavy metals. The highest heavy-metal concentrations were found in the roots, followed by the stems, leaves, and seeds. When a Czech group examined 28 different plant species in 2004 for potential use for radio-phytoremediation, they planted them in an old uranium mill tailings waste depot. At the conclusion of the study, the researchers found hemp to possess the best radioactive uptake.

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