Cannabis may be a surprising solution to Maine’s ‘chemicals forever’ problem
When the US government ceded more than 600 acres of the former Loring Air Force Base to the Mi’kmaq Band of Aroostook in 2009, the land was so polluted that it was listed as a federal superfund site.
Although many toxins have been removed, worrying levels remain in soil and water.
It turns out that when it comes to neutralizing at least one group of toxic chemicals, the solution may be to plant cannabis. Many.
Currently researching by members of the Micmac Nation and the group Highland Base, with scientists from Connecticut and Virginia, is studying the ability of industrial hemp to extract perfluorooctanesulfonic acid – PFOS – from soil.
PFOS, along with inorganic per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, are often referred to as “eternal chemicals.” They are used in industrial and household products and pose risks to human health.
The research explores a possible way to solve the problem of worsening chemicals forever across the state. Dangerous levels of PFAS and PFOS have been found in Maine deer meat, chicken eggs, cow’s milk, soil and groundwater. These findings have left health and resource agencies scrambling to find ways to identify, mitigate and eliminate health risks. If it works, planting hemp would be the first known solution to absorbing chemicals from the soil forever.
David Madore, deputy commissioner for the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, said the research aligns well with ongoing work in his department.
“DEP is actively researching ways to manage, treat and remove PFAS in soils, as there is currently no clear and cost-effective solution,” Madore said. “With research being carried out at Loring, hemp could prove 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.
In their research, Loring’s group planted several small plots of industrial hemp in soil known to contain PFAS and PFOS. Once the hemp matured, it was harvested and sent to Sara Nason at Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, a state-run scientific research center.
“The idea was to see if hemp fiber could clean PFAS from the soil in Loring and find out what hemp does with the chemicals,” said Chelli Stanley of Upland Grassroots.
Using plants to extract toxins and heavy metals from the soil is known as phytoremediation. Stanley co-founded Upland Grassroots specifically to look at ways to use hemp for this process.
The concentration of PFOS in the soil has decreased in the Loring hemp plots, according to Nason. The data also showed that several PFAS chemicals had accumulated in the tissues of hemp plants.
Loring Air Force Base in Limestone was closed in 1995 under the federal Base Realignment and Closure Act. The lands returned to the Micmac tribe included a five-tank fuel tank farm containing 13 million gallons of jet fuel and a coal handling station.
There are more than PFAS and PFOS chemicals at Loring, but Stanley said they were selected because they fit in with existing research at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station.
Richard Silliboy, vice-chief of the Micmac tribe, said the tribe wanted to know the extent of the pollution in Loring.
“Some of this land that was given to us by the Air Force was very questionable,” he said. “They say they did a lot of cleaning, but no one really knows what their idea of cleaning was.”
The Maine Department of Environmental Protection is still inspecting the extent of the problem, having identified 34 municipalities around Maine for PFAS sampling by 2023.
The agency is focusing its investigation on soil and groundwater from private wells. When unsafe levels are found in private groundwater, the state will provide homeowners with bottled water until a proper filtration system can be installed.
the The legislator has set a deadline for all testing by the end of 2025. Meanwhile, state officials are conducting more deer testing across the state.
The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention will continue to test dairy, poultry and other food products as needed when unsafe levels of PFAS and PFOS are identified.
“We met with state environment and agriculture officials to talk about hemp as a solution,” Stanley said. “They’re really interested and I’m amazed at how proactive they are in wanting to get the situation under control.”
The next step is to determine where the chemicals end up in the hemp plant and what happens to them.
“We need to know if the plant is breaking down the chemical,” Stanley said. “Or if it’s just sequestering it, is there a way to get the chemicals using hemp for something?”
Researchers plan to follow up by planting a much larger hemp crop this summer in Loring. The size of the plots was limited by the amount of water the researchers could carry. Loring’s water was too polluted to use.