The cannabis plant has so many different uses. It’s been used medicinally for a variety of conditions (including seizures, cancer and fibromyalgia), and has even been utilized in the production of paper, fabric, hemp bricks (“hempcrete”), hemp plastic, as well as fuel (which can be created from industrial hemp).
Now, cannabis is being used to remove toxic metals, and even radiation, from the soil. This process is also known as phytoremediation, a process that uses plants to clean polluted soil.
Cannabis and Phytoremediation
For over a decade, industrial hemp has been used to reduce soil toxicity near the abandoned Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Pripyat, Ukraine. In the 30km exclusion zone surrounding Chernobyl, high concentrations of various toxic metals (like iodine, cesium-137, strontium-90 and plutonium) were found in the soil (as well as the plants and animals) (1).
In a response to this toxicity crisis, a variety of different plant crops were grown, such as sunflower and maize. In 1998, hemp plantings began, as Slavik Dushenkov, a research scientist, discovered that hemp was one of the best phyto-remediative plants they were able to find.
The reason cannabis showed promise was because of its hardiness to toxins, and quick growth rates. Some have even considered using it near Fukushima (however, there are strict Cannabis Control Laws in Japan, thanks to occupying U.S. power in 1948. This can make obtaining a cannabis growing license extremely difficult to obtain).
In 2009, scientists from Belarus also experimented with hemp in areas polluted by Chernobyl (2). The scientists noted that one added benefit of industrial hemp over other phytoremediation plants is that it can be used to produce biofuel after it removes toxins from the soil (making it much more environmentally friendly, as it would be utilized for two purposes).
Cannabis and Taranto, Italy
Europe’s largest steel mill in the city of Taranto, Italy, is used to produce over 10 million tonnes of steel every year (over 40% of all the steel in Italy is made here). The population of Taranto, which now reaches around 200,000, is almost entirely reliant on the steel mill, which is one of the biggest and most deadly polluters of anywhere in the Mediterranean.
The steel mill plant is a notorious source of dioxins (3), a group of chemically-related compounds that are persistent environmental pollutants (POPs). These chemicals are highly toxic, and can cause reproductive and developmental problems, damage the immune system and interfere with hormones and also cause cancer (4).
The dioxins, plus dust from the plant is believe to be the reason why Taranto has a lung cancer rate 30% higher than the national average. In fact, it’s so toxic that farmers have been forbidden from raising their livestock within a 20-kilometre radius of the plant.
Despite the impacts the mill has on the environment, trying to find ways to shut it down is nearly impossible, as least for now. The steel mill is currently under government control, and although health officials have ordered the mill to be partially shut down, government authorities have failed to budge.
Cannabis and One Man’s Farm
Vincenzo Fornaro, a farmer whose land is less than a mile away from the steel mill, recently came up with a solution to the toxic problem the plant poses to his land. After having to kill an entire flock of 600 sheep (due to dioxin poisoning), and being forbidden from raising livestock or crops for food, he decided to take matters into his own hands (5).
Vincenzo Fornaro now grows marijuana, and although he doesn’t grow it to smoke or sell, he’s actively remediating his land to rid it of toxic matter.
Fornaro has now planted huge stands of industrial hemp on his farm, using the phytoremediation tactics described above.
Several studies have shown that hemp is extremely effective at absorbing toxins like cadmium and heavy metals. However, despite the evidence, strict growing laws in the U.S. that surround cannabis prevent this method from being actively pursued in North America.
The process of phytoremediation with cannabis could be the answer to a lot of the toxicity issues we see in North America today (as well as many other places around the world). Nothing can be built on polluted sites until they are cleaned, meaning that these sites sit and continue to pollute the earth until something is done.
The amazing thing about hemp is that once it has been used to clean up a toxic area, it can still be put to use. Although it wouldn’t be a good idea to consume or wear hemp products harvested from areas where nuclear waste once glowed, this hemp is still safe for a variety of other applications. For instance, hemp can be converted into oil for lubrication or other industrial purposes, or it can be used as insulation or even “hempcrete,” which is just as strong, if not better, than using bricks for building houses.
So instead of all that steel being produced in Italy (which is destroying the land as a result), we can grow hemp, detox the land, and use that hemp in place of the steel to build eco-friendly housing and establishments.