State of Maine shows interest in hemp as solution to clean polluted soil

State of Maine shows interest in hemp as solution to clean polluted soil

After initial tests by members of the Micmac Nation and their collaborators, the State of Maine is showing interest in hemp’s ability to pull “forever chemicals” from the ground. Plans are in the works for more tests, with significantly more hemp, this summer.

The Back Story

In 2009, the U.S. government transferred land in northeastern Maine to the Aroostook Bank of Micmacs. Having been used as an Air Force base, the level of hazardous contaminants there had landed the site on the federal government’s Superfund cleanup list.

Of particular concern were PFAS (per- or polyfluoroalkyl substances). This is a group of human-made chemicals that’ve been shown to cause health problems, including cancer. You’ve likely encountered them in nonstick pans, fast food wrappers, stain-resistant fabrics, even low-emissions vehicles. They’re also used in the process of making phones, tablets and semi-conductors.

Why are they called “forever chemicals”? They don’t break down. Not in the environment. Not in your body.

One kind of PFAS used in firefighting foam was of specific concern: perfluorooctane sulfonic acid, or PFOS. The foam had been sprayed repeatedly during firefighting tests at the erstwhile Loring Air Force Base.

Even after cleanup, concerns remained about these toxins in the soil and water.

Hemp to the Rescue

Research at the site since 2019 has shown promise in removing these forever chemicals from soil using hemp. Before-and-after testing showed reduced concentrations of PFOS in the soil, and tests on the hemp plants confirmed the presence of various PFAS chemicals.

It would seem that the hemp pulls these contaminants from the ground as it grows, allowing them to be removed with the crop. (For those who like science words, this process is called “phytoremediation.”)

Bigger Than They Thought

The forever-chemical problem isn’t confined to the former Air Force base.

“Dangerous levels of PFAS and PFOS have been found in Maine’s deer meat, chicken eggs, dairy milk, soil and groundwater,” reports the Bangor Daily News. “Those discoveries have left health and resource agencies scrambling to find ways to identify, mitigate and remove the health hazards.”

It appears that the research at the former Loring Air Force Base has caught the eye of some.

“[We’re] actively looking for ways to manage, treat, and dispose of PFAs in the soil because there is no clear and cost-effective solution at this time,” David Madore, deputy commissioner of Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection, told Bangor Daily News. “With the research being done at Loring, hemp may turn out to be an option [and] we support this and other efforts to find a solution to the PFAS problem and welcome opportunities for future collaboration.”

Chelli Stanley of Upland Grassroots, one of the research partners on the hemp-based phytoremediation project, confirmed the interest of state officials.

“We have met with state environmental and agriculture officials to talk about hemp as a solution,” Stanley told the Bangor Daily News. “They are really interested and it’s amazing to me how proactive they are being in wanting to get this under control.”

More Research is Needed

Questions remain about the contaminant-filled hemp and what to do with it. For instance, does the plant break the chemicals down or simply sequester them?

More research, with a much larger crop of hemp, are reportedly in the works for this summer.