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Hemp Cleans Up Radioactive Soil and So Much More

Matt Weeks
Hemp Field in the fog

Could hemp be the plant that saves the planet? It is the best soil contaminant cleaner, and that includes radioactive waste. 

Is there anything hemp can’t do? The mostly outlawed plant, once cultivated by George Washington at his Mount Vernon home, can be made into fabric, paper, pasta, and fuel, but now scientists have discovered a more subtle and astonishing use for cannabis sativa: saving the planet from our waste. Hemp can even get rid of radioactive soil contaminants.

Industrial hemp, the common name for low-THC varieties of cannabis grown for non-medicinal-related uses, has been shown to be extremely adept at sucking up harmful chemicals from the soil, allowing former radioactive spill sites to become fertile (and safe) once again.

Combine harvest hemp

Image Credit: ZZ Photos

How Do They Clean Up Soil Contamination?

Ordinarily, unusable soil that has been sullied by heavy metals or nuclear material is fixed through a process called remediation, which involves sowing designer chemicals into the earth that “eat up” the poisons. Think of it like using a magnet to collect tiny bits of metal floating in a glass of water. Remediation, however, doesn’t come cheap. It’s a billion-dollar industry.

However, all of that can happen naturally—and much less expensively—through what’s known as phytoremediation (phyto- from the Greek for “plant”). In phytoremediation, the roots of plants like hemp or mustard, dig deep into contaminated soil and, through their natural growth process, suck up the harmful chemicals right alongside the beneficial nutrients that remain. These polluting elements are completely removed from the ground and stored within the growing plants—usually within the leaves, stems or stalks.

Cannabis Sprout coming out of the soil close up

Image Credit: Infinity Time

Phytoremediation with Hemp

Scientists at Colorado State University showed that hemp makes a particularly good phytoremediator thanks to several genetic perks:

Hemp has a Long Root System

This plant can grow to eight feet below the surface, giving soil a deep clean.

Hemp is Fast Growing

Hemp reaches full maturity in six months and isn’t harmed by soil contaminants.

Hemp is Inexpensive

When compared to chemical remediation, hemp is far less expensive, and can then be harvested and used as a cash crop.

Hemp Field in the fog

Image Credit: Judita

Hemp that has been used to remove the fertility-killing elements cesium and cadmium, for instance, can be used as fuel in biomass engines, processed into insulation or paper. It probably should not, however, be eaten or smoked.

Industrial hemp is already being used as a phytoremediator in heavily contaminated areas throughout the world. One town in southern Italy saw its agriculture and livestock industries go bust after a local steel mill’s output polluted the ground for miles around. A shepherd there was forced to euthanize his 600-member flock, so he took up planting hemp, which has been steadily cleaning his soil ever since.

Sheep at dawn in hilly region

Image Credit: Maryna Cotton

Can Hemp Be Used for Cleaning Up Radioactive Soil?

The most famous uses of hemp as a way to clean and revive soil come from some of the worst environmental disasters of the modern era. The nuclear accidents in Chernobyl, Ukraine and Fukushima, Japan have been going through a decades long detox thanks in large part to acres of hemp. For one plant to be able to clean up the most hazardous material mankind has ever created is simply amazing. Cannabis is literally saving the human race from itself.

And now, thanks to loosening government restrictions on the use and cultivation of cannabis, the practice may be expanding to polluted sites all over the United States and the world.

Radioactive sign in front of abandoned street

Image Credit: Leshiy985

For example, the University of Virginia, which is located relatively close to grounds that have been toxified by coal mines throughout the region, has partnered with a biotechnology company to genetically modify hemp plants to make their pollutant uptake even stronger. The project could lead to vast amounts of reclaimed land that could be used for farming

The idea is simple. Just as phytoremediation was an improvement on chemical remediation, using industrial hemp was another head and shoulders above using other plants, like trees or sunflowers. In addition to its long roots, which allow the plant to absorb more soil contaminants, and its quick lifecycle, hemp is also a hardy plant. It requires much less watering and regular tending than do sunflowers.

Uses of hemp meme

Image Credit: ElenaBSI

The biggest problem for this potentially world-saving solution? Government regulations.

Cultivating hemp is still illegal in Japan, which is directly impacting how quickly cleanup around the Fukushima nuclear power plant can proceed. And in the U.S., the semi-legality of cannabis makes everything from testing plants to securing research loans harder than it needs to be.

 

 

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Matt Weeks

A writer living and working in Athens, GA, Matt's work has appeared in various newspapers, books, magazines and online publications over the last 15 years. When he's not writing, he hosts bar trivia, plays in local bands, and makes a mean guacamole. He holds an undergraduate degree in journalism and a master's degree in organizational theory. His favorite movie is "Fletch."

13 Comments
  • Avatar
    Charles Dowling

    Why are there no references I can see?

    January 22, 2019 at 7:09 am Reply
    • Jennifer Grant

      All references are within the articles. Click on any term that is in green text, especially if it says “Study.”

      January 24, 2019 at 10:42 am Reply
  • Avatar
    Tim

    So do the plants become radioactive?? I understand how heavy metals and such can be broken down but a decaying isotope is still giving off radiation no?

    February 18, 2019 at 11:37 am Reply
    • Avatar
      Shannon Braun

      After remediation. How is it disposed of? That is the key issue.

      June 8, 2019 at 11:48 am Reply
    • Avatar
      PCrawley

      I too wonder about what to do with the now radioactive plants. The article mentions using them for biofuel but wouldn’t that just be burning radioactive product into the atmosphere?

      September 21, 2019 at 3:49 pm Reply
      • Jennifer Grant

        It’s a good question, for which we have been unable to find a satisfactory answer. There is a change for biotransformation inside the plant, but I think in all instances of phytoremediation, there will be contaminants. This is an interesting article (2004) that investigates the pros and cons of different phytoextraction practices: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0269749103003609

        September 22, 2019 at 2:32 pm Reply
  • Avatar
    Jam Jimson

    Some scientific links to show the proof of the radioactive eating would be real nice

    May 30, 2019 at 4:13 am Reply
    • Jennifer Grant

      Hi Jam – you can find one of the links below. There are more linked sources within the article. Look for the green text. https://sites.biology.colostate.edu/phytoremediation/2012/Phytoremediation%20with%20hemp%20by%20Laura%20Cascardi.pdf

      May 30, 2019 at 9:57 am Reply
      • Avatar
        Eric Simpson

        That link only goes to a Power Point presentation *by a student!* It is NOT a peer-reviewed study in any way, shape, or form. It also does *not* conclude (as you claim it does) that hemp makes a “particularly good phytoremediator”…in fact, the student concludes that hemp is “not the most efficient phytoremediator” and that it only has “potential” as a “good phytorediator.”

        October 2, 2019 at 5:43 pm Reply
        • Jennifer Grant

          Hi Eric – that is not an accurate representation of the slide presentation by Colorado State researchers at all. On the last 4 slides (with text), you can find their conclusions and then cited resources. In addition, there are some links to other studies cited at the end of this article also referenced in the article: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/BF02632036g

          October 2, 2019 at 7:45 pm Reply
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    Bill Burgess

    Really looking forward to Hemp Composite Studs for Hemp SIPS. Imagine having a exterior wall panel with cast in moldings in any color you want that are lighter and stronger than anything now available that can be ordered in almost any length or height?

    August 16, 2019 at 5:32 pm Reply
  • Avatar
    Mart Malazarte

    I used to work for a company that produced huge sizes of ropes used on ships and even aircraft carriers. It also produced all kinds of rope sizes for daily consumption of any and all kinds. It used “HEMP” as raw material.

    August 26, 2019 at 2:05 am Reply
  • Avatar
    Melanie

    That is terrible idea to GM it and obviously just a money making thing. Natural is best and Frankenstein plants just will make it worst. It is perfect as it is as mother nature designed it to be. This was an interesting article. Thank you.

    September 22, 2019 at 12:26 pm Reply

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