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Sometimes solutions to big problems come from unexpected places. Take the recent news that hemp may help with “forever chemical” contamination, a growing problem in Maine and the nation.
Researchers with the Micmac Nation, Upland Grassroots and other institutions have found that hemp, or cannabis, grown in soil contaminated with a type of polyfluoroalkyl substance, or PFAS, helped to withdraw the chemical from the soil.
When the U.S. government turned over more than 600 acres of the former Loring Air Force Base to the Aroostook Band of Micmacs in 2009, the land was so polluted it was categorized as a federal superfund site.
While many of the toxins have been removed, concerning levels remain in the soil and water.
Ongoing research by members of the Micmac Nation and the group Upland Grassroots, along with scientists in Connecticut and Virginia, has found that industrial hemp can extract perfluorooctanesulfonic acid — a type of PFAS — from the soil.
Dangerous levels of PFAS have been found in soil and groundwater and dairy milk in various locations in Maine. More recently, the chemicals have been found in deer meat and chicken eggs, in central Maine. The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife has warned hunters not to eat meat from deer shot in the Fairfield area because of the contamination.
Chemicals known as PFAS have been used in various applications including non-stick coating and water-resistant materials. PFAS chemicals are associated with higher risks for asthma, liver damage, thyroid disease, preeclampsia, high cholesterol and decreased fertility, according to an assessment from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry. These substances can break down slowly, causing them to persist in the environment and earning them the “forever chemicals” label.
The chemicals are so widespread that they have already been found in nearly every American who has been tested for them. Scientists estimate that nearly two-thirds of Americans have drinking water that is contaminated with some form of the chemicals.
In October, the state identified 34 Maine towns — including Fairfield — where the Maine Department of Environmental Protection will test for soil and water contamination. That important effort is focusing on sites where municipal and industrial waste has been used as fertilizer. Military installations, like Loring, are also the sites of extensive PFAS contamination across the country.
The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention will continue to test dairy, poultry and other food items as needed where dangerous levels of PFAS and PFOS are identified. In addition, state officials are conducting more tests on deer throughout the state.
Given the extent of the problem, the cannabis research at Loring is promising, even if it isn’t a definitive or full solution to addressing contamination.
In their research, the group at Loring planted several small plots of industrial hemp in soil known to contain PFAS and PFOS. Once the hemp had matured, it was harvested and sent to Sara Nason at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, a state-run scientific research facility.
The concentration of PFOS in the soil decreased in the Loring hemp plots, according to Nason. Data also showed that several PFAS chemicals had accumulated in the hemp plants’ tissue.
David Madore, deputy commissioner of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, said the research fits in well with ongoing work at his department.
“The DEP is actively looking for ways to manage, treat, and dispose of PFAS in soils because there is no clear and cost effective solution at this time,” Madore said. “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.”
Additional research, with a much larger hemp crop, is planned for this summer.
The state is putting significant resources into the PFAS identification efforts and has taken other steps like enacting more stringent PFAS drinking water standards and extending the statute of limitations for Mainers to claim PFAS-related harm.
In October, the federal government announced a national strategy to limit further PFAS releases and to cleanup contamination that has already happened, and the bipartisan infrastructure package signed into law in November included $10 billion to help get PFAS out of drinking water.
Identifying and stopping future contamination is essential. Researching ways, especially natural ones, to clean contaminated soil, such as by planting hemp, is another step in addressing contamination from these forever chemicals.