Bankruptcy and lost data have stunted research into hemp’s radioactive remediation abilities, leaving the public left to sift through misinformation and premature celebrations.
This article was originally published in HEMP’s Issue 3. Subscribe HERE.
Here’s how the story goes: From Chernobyl to Fukushima, hemp is an agricultural superhero —cheaper than technology, more environmentally friendly than chemicals and able to clean up radioactive soil in a single season.
But there’s a problem with this story. In the plethora of articles touting hemp’s ability to pull radioactive toxins from contaminated soils, they usually cite the same scientific source: a study whose results were never published.
In 1998, the New Jersey-based company Phytotech, in partnership with Consolidated Growers and Processors (CGP) and the Ukraine’s Institute of Bast Crops, planted industrial hemp near the Chernobyl site to study its application to remediate the soil. But, for various reasons, the results of their research never reached the public. Today, the question remains: Did Phytotech actually find out that hemp could effectively remediate radioactive compounds?
A Cautionary Tale of Research Gone Missing
What can be pieced together from various secondary sources is that CGP was initially excited with their findings. In 1999, the CGP filed a document with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) that said they had an “exclusive license for a phytoremediation process technology for all applications that would utilize industrial hemp as the plant.”
Unfortunately for CGP, theyfiled for bankruptcythe next year. Before they went bankrupt, one of the scientists on the team, Dr. Slavik Dushenkov, was able to present his research at the XVI International Botanical Congress in Saint Louis, Missouri, which was the only opportunity the scientific community had to hear Phytotech’s findings, since no scientific paper reporting the results of those field experiments has been published.
Since Phytotech did not publish their data, generations of researchers have relied on hearsay, looking at books or other studies that reference hemp remediation. But since those sources also did not have a study to reference, some of them have major inconsistencies casting doubt on the alleged findings.
“Since Phytotech did not publish their data, generations of researchers have relied on hearsay.”
Two recently published books reference the Phytotech research, a 2014 textbook called “Soil Remediation and Plants” and “Reviews of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, Volume 241,” published in 2017.
In “Reviews of Environmental Contamination,” the authors say Phytotech’s research found hemp to be the “most efficient plant useful for eliminating toxins such as metals, solvents, pesticides, explosives, etc. from contaminated topsoil.”
In “Soil Remediation,” the authors report that Phytotech found “hemp was as good as sunflower” at extracting radioactive Cesium and Strontium isotopes, and that sunflowers could “remove as much as 95 percent of toxic contaminants.” This book was the only source to actually describe the experiment, which the authors claim examined hemp’s ability to pull toxins from contaminated water, not topsoil, as “Reviews of Environmental Contamination”claims.
While Phytotech’s findings on hemp weren’t enough to be worth publishing, there appears to be something that the company believed was worth trademarking in 1993, and then again in 1996, regarding “environmental remediation services; namely, remediation of environmental pollution.” As both of those trademarks predate their hemp research, which began in 1998, and neither specifies radioactive compounds or hemp, it is unlikely the trademarks had anything to do with the supposed hemp research. For whatever reason, Phytotech let their first trademark expire and cancelled their second trademark on May 8, 2004.
What We Really Know About Hemp Phytoremediation
If Phytotech did find anything useful, it appears to have been lost to the ages in a bad game of telephone played out over two decades on the internet. Thankfully, there is more recent research that shows hemp can phytoremediate radioactive compounds. In 2004, a study in the Journal of Radioanalytical and Nuclear Chemistry looked at 28 different species of plants and found hemp to be the fourth best remediator of radium out of all species examined (even better than sunflowers).
The rest of the literature on hemp as a phytoremediator has focused on its effectiveness at pulling heavy metals and other chemical compounds, rather than radioactive isotopes, from contaminated soils.
In the past 19 years, at least three studies have shown hemp be an effective remediator of several toxic heavy metals, including copper, cadmium, nickel, lead and chromium. One 2006 study in the International Journal of Phytoremediation even found that hemp can sequester the compounds known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which are groups of chemicals that occur in gasoline and oil and can be carcinogenic.
The studies do disagree over where the bulk of those toxins are sequestered, with some studies saying the toxins are stored in the roots and others saying it’s in the leaves.
Regardless, Dr. Dushenkov’s 1999 presentation of Phytotech’s research does seem to have spurred on a surge of research on hemp’s usefulness as a phytoremediator.
But given the promising findings on hemp phytoremediation over the past two decades, and the continued need to remediate toxic areas like Chernobyl and Fukushima, it is surprising that so little is being done with that research.
While hemp is currently being used in Taranto, Italy to clean up the toxins from a massive steel factory, it hasn’t yet caught on in the United States, where it could prove helpful at the Hanford Nuclear Site, referred to as “America’s Chernobyl,” as well as numerous other polluted areas. Perhaps with time, the legends around hemp’s radioactive remediation powers will prove to be true.