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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. 

Editor’s Note: some text has been updated for clarity (11/30/2019) following feedback from readers. Please see comments for more information.

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 (CSU), including Elizabeth Pilon-Smith, have spent decades pondering how plants can help clean the soil. This link to a CSU student summary of hemp phytoremediation gives a nice review of that we know so far (2012), including links to peer-reviewed studies on the subject.

There is always more research coming in, but hemp has been thrust into the phytoremediation spotlight because it has a few genetic perks that make it ideal for the job:

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 could from some of the worst environmental disasters of the modern era. The nuclear accidents in Chernobyl, Ukraine and Fukushima, Japan may benefit from soil detox thanks to industrial hemp. Scientists working in Chernobyl in 1990s reported that hemp, along with mustard, are able to remove heavy metals from the soil.

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."

36 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
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    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
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      Shannon Braun

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

      June 8, 2019 at 11:48 am Reply
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      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
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        Betty Lacroix

        And wouldn’t turning it into toilet paper contaminate the the water that goes into treatment plants that we drink water our plants, gardens nd lawns with.

        November 26, 2019 at 12:52 pm Reply
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    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
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        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 the student at Colorado State at all. On the last 4 slides (with text), you can 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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            nd

            Eric’s reply is actually perfectly accurate. He quoted the slide presentation verbatim and it should be noted that the presentation was made by one student, not a team of researchers. That student was then obtaining a bachelor’s degree. It’s not peer reviewed science. It’s a term paper summarizing other people’s work. It also appears to cite a German study that mimicked Chernobyl conditions. I can’t find anything closer than this claiming that hemp was actually planted at Chernobyl. I also can’t find any evidence that hemp has been planted at Fukushima.

            November 30, 2019 at 8:26 am
          • Jennifer Grant

            The link is to a student presentation that simplifies the potential uses of hemp in terms of phytoremediation.There are more than several peer reviewed citations at the end of that presentation. The CSU input is mentioned in that presentation. I will agree that the link highlight may be confusing and will have that revised for clarity. For Chernobyl, I have a couple of interesting things to add. The term “phytoremediation” was coined by a scientist investigating how hemp was cleaning up the soil (heavy metals) at that Chernobyl site. That scientist is named Ilya Raskin. Vyacheslav Dushenkov is a second scientists that verifies this to be true. The German study that you mention was to provide evidence that what Raskin and Dushenkov claim were true. Fukushima – as far as I know they have only used sunflowers for phytoremediation efforts. There is some information on decontamination efforts in this paper: https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/research_reports/RR800/RR857/RAND_RR857.pdf.

            November 30, 2019 at 11:40 pm
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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
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    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
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    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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    Celina Harrell

    Disappointing. The links to references are broken. For the hemp industry to actually gain credibility and traction in the marketplace we need to adhere to standards. In my opinion, take this down until you can figure out citations.

    October 14, 2019 at 7:30 pm Reply
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      Celina Harrell

      I was looking for a way to edit my comment, can’t find one so this’ll do. The references on the last slide of that power point are good. It’s still not the best way to go about crediting sources. I hope that we can push past the stigma of hemp and marijuana use with education and competency. The more people know the less fear there is about a subject. Thanks for sharing.

      October 14, 2019 at 7:36 pm Reply
      • Jennifer Grant

        Apologies, Celina – all comments are held in moderation. You should be able to edit now.

        October 14, 2019 at 8:25 pm Reply
    • Jennifer Grant

      There are multiple references. I’ll quickly check for broken links, as that happens from time to time. Just haven’t received a report yet.

      October 14, 2019 at 8:27 pm Reply
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    WALTER ADAMS

    HEMP – good? – bad?
    Why can’t we put aside the prejudice against this ancient crop and take advantage of its benefits?
    I HATE dope.
    I HATE it with a hatred that burns in my guts.
    It damn near killed my brother after trashing 20 years of his life.
    It put my nephew in the hospital.
    And , my son, the pride of my life and the center of his mothers heart, flushed half his life down the toilet because of dope.
    And ALL of them started with Weed, Hemp, Marijuana.
    50 years of Hollywood and the In Crowd, preaching with a religious fervor how cool, wonderful, harmless Weed was, and stupid, anal-retentive, uncool and just plain losers were the old fogeys that outlawed it.
    Even today, Sitcoms and movies will usually make the point that their character is OK by adding a scene where someone pulls a joint from their purse or pocket and they light up and become mellow, at ease, better able to deal with the problems they face.
    There is not a doubt in my mind that Hemp can do all the wonderful things you say it can, although there is a very good reason clothing isn’t made of Hemp anymore – wear a Hemp shirt for a day or two and you will bless the Cotton plant.
    Want to utilise the hemp plant?
    You will have to seperate it from DOPE and all of the fools who will let the world fall down on their heads before they will give up their god given right to Bogart that joint one more time.

    October 15, 2019 at 9:20 am Reply
    • Jennifer Grant

      Very sorry to hear this about your brother and nephew. Cannabis is important medicine. That doesn’t mean people won’t abuse it, sadly. I can feel your pain and anger. I’m sorry for your loss.

      October 15, 2019 at 11:39 am Reply
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      Mick Webb

      Cannabis, the plant family, has two main strands, hemp and marijuana, two different plants. Hemp has no more than 0.3% THC (the psychoactive compound in it), whilst marijuana has far higher amounts. We are looking at hemp here and people need to understand the difference

      December 5, 2019 at 4:56 am Reply
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    Mike Siesel

    The contaminants have to go somewhere. They don’t evaporate. That’s why this is a phony claim, and it undermines your credibility.
    As an agronomists (retired) I’m an advocate of hemp, but there are no magically properties in the plant. The mere uptake of the contaminants doesn’t resolve the problem, it simply relocates the contaminant.
    Cannabis is deep rooted so that helps, but how much does it uptake, what happens when the contaminants are locked into the fiber, and how is that disposed of in an environmentally safe manner?
    So where’s the data?

    October 30, 2019 at 5:07 pm Reply
    • Jennifer Grant

      The contaminants, whether heavy metal or radioactive, are better concentrated in a plant than spread throughout the environment. The relocation DOES solve the problem.There are many great science minds working on what do to with the end products of phytoremediation. Here is an interesting discussion on exactly this problem with multiple study links in the conversation thread: https://www.researchgate.net/post/What_is_the_fate_of_plants_used_in_phytoremediation. The short answer is that it depends on the contaminant. There is some biotransformation of organic compounds but heavy metals and radioactive waste are typically stored. It’s like mopping up a spill and keeping that in one location instead of spread out destroying food webs. Hemp is a great mop. I’m sure with your background you can find lots more information in your own. Feel free to share.

      October 31, 2019 at 10:34 am Reply
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        Jay Farquharson

        Hi Jennifer,

        This link just appeared on my FB page, and I have been following the string with great interest, as I have a larger fish to fry. I very much am interested in(hopefully) sourcing hemp as a direct replacement for Nylon 6,6 in commercial applications for my company. Also, there is a very large use for plastic in paint cups, and 3M is the market leader here.

        Can you comment on the following questions, sorry if too technical, but this is exciting stuff!

        How efficient is hemp at extracting and breaking down organics such as BTEX, and at what depths?

        How efficient is hemp at uptake of metals, particularly lead, arsenic and cadmium? Once the plant has taken up these, does the presence of metals affect the plant’s ability to be rendered into a safe and useful product? It would be quite desirable to doe something other than combust it as a fuel.

        Concerning radioactive uptake:

        Are there species and concentrations of waste that the plant cannot tolerate?

        Is it better at uptake of some products that others? I am thinking of the example of Cesium 137 and coconut trees.

        Could these plants be useful around the leaking tanks on the Hanford Reservation? Admittedly, I do not know how that waste migrates or has migrated in soil. If the plants do successfully extract such wastes, would they then be vitrified in concrete or glass? From an opportunity cost standpoint, would it be cheaper to mine and extract contaminated soil?

        Thank you

        December 1, 2019 at 12:49 pm Reply
        • Jennifer Grant

          Hi Jay – I love all of these questions! This is an incredibly important and fascinating area of research. I am an expert on phytoremediation, but let me see if I can connect with Elizabeth Pilon-Smith at CSU and get an interview piece done to tackle some of this information. Stay tuned and thanks for jumping in!

          December 1, 2019 at 11:39 pm Reply
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    Susan Russell

    I What about contaminates such as glyphosate (Round-up) or chlorpyrifos? Will hemp rejuvenate the soil from those applications? Or do we not have data on that yet?

    November 3, 2019 at 12:20 pm Reply
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    Gopi Nagarajan

    It was surprising to know that Hemp is going to be earth saving plant. I am from a Textile field(yarn manufacturer) only aware that fibers can be out of hemp, recently i came to know that flower out this plant is used as medicine for cancer patient in china. In fact we are also looking for good quality super soft Hemp fibers.

    November 11, 2019 at 12:46 am Reply
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    Jan Teaford

    Perhaps the toxins are released into the air through transpiration?

    November 19, 2019 at 6:11 am Reply
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    James Colquhoun

    They used hemp to clean up the mess at the Chernobyl disaster (1986). Futhermore here’s an article from PubMed titled :Radioprotective Potential of Plants and Herbs against the Effects of Ionizing Radiation: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2127223/

    December 2, 2019 at 8:47 am Reply
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    Patrick Monk.RN

    Excellent. However I believe mushrooms are as good or better. Check out Paul Stamets. A great combo for companion planting.

    December 2, 2019 at 8:49 pm Reply
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    tom charles osher

    Its incredile that not one person noted that hemp has been illegal for years and still is in many countries. Why? Because we are under the domination of corrupt governments that don’t have our interests at heart. Hemp is a solution, but the real problem is government. If we would simply restructure gov’t from vertical or pyrimidal to horizontal, which is virtually uncorruptible, we wouldn’t have had to wait since 1939 or so for humanity to grow this wondrous plant. People or sheeple are so used to the abuses of these corrupt governments that they forget that they are taking us all to extinction, totalitarianism or both.

    December 3, 2019 at 3:01 pm Reply
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    Oshana Katranidou

    In Oregon, hemp growing has replaced multiple food farm operations. Hemp growing has replaced multiple hay and animal feed growing operations. Hemp has created food deserts in areas that were once rich with local agriculture that provided locally sourced foods for people in the area. Now that a majority of food farmers are cultivating hemp instead, our food integrity suffers. Food has to be harvested from hundreds of miles away and it loses its nutritional value as it spends days on trucks increasing the carbon footprint of the denatured food that we are left with after it’s long haul. And of course, it takes three years to fully remediate soils from toxins and there is yet no viable answer to how to process the hemp plants that have uptaken radiation and other soil toxins for so many years. And then there is the factor of hundreds of thousands of feet of plastic groundcover being used by hemp farmers to control weeds. The plastic is left everywhere throughout the winter to disintegrate into micro particles that pollute the soil the water, and the air. And, rodent poison’s abound, which enter the food chain and wind up harming top predators and polluting waterways at the same time. There are many factors that must be brought into balance before I, as a lifelong appreciator of cannabis, will gracefully accept the impacts that commercialized hemp has been making on our food, water and earth and our ability to survive beyond corporate food systems. Hemp is destroying local food economies. That’s a fact.

    December 4, 2019 at 2:22 pm Reply
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    Jane

    Why are you interchsnging Hemp with Cannabis???? They may look the same but they are not!!!!

    December 12, 2019 at 11:13 am Reply
    • Jennifer Grant

      Hemp is cannabis. The are both from same genus.

      December 12, 2019 at 12:03 pm Reply

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