By / May 23, 2024

Belgian Village Turns to Hemp to Combat ‘Forever Chemicals’ (PFAS)

The potential of cannabis as an environmental remediation tool is gaining ground, particularly regarding contamination caused by per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), often called “forever chemicals.”

These substances have lasting effects on the environment due to their resistance to degradation in nature. An initiative originating from the Belgian village of Lillo, part of Antwerp, will test the efficacy of cannabis in cleaning soils polluted by these persistent chemicals.

The Challenge of Contamination

PFAS are synthetic chemicals used since the 1950s in a variety of industrial and consumer products due to their water and grease-resistant properties. They are found in non-stick cookware, fast-food packaging, water-resistant clothing, carpets, and even personal care products like waterproof mascaras and sunscreens. However, their durability means they accumulate in the environment, leading to widespread pollution of water, air, fish, and soil.

In Lillo, the contamination stems from the use of firefighting foam, which has led to significant PFAS pollution. The village plans to build a new fire station on the contaminated site, but the soil must first be decontaminated. This is where cannabis comes into play. Researchers from Ghent University and local officials are studying the use of cannabis to extract PFAS from the soil, an approach that could provide a viable alternative to traditional methods such as soil excavation and incineration.

The Role of Cannabis in Environmental Remediation

Cannabis is known for its phytoremediation properties, which means its ability to absorb contaminants from the soil and store them in its tissues. This method is being tested in Lillo to determine if cannabis can effectively reduce PFAS levels in the soil. According to Bart De Wever, Mayor of Antwerp and head of emergency services, “The (cannabis) plant is not only good for our circular economy, it also has the potential to extract PFAS from contaminated soils. That’s why research in this area deserves all our support.”

The success of this initiative could lead to a nationwide deployment of cannabis-based remediation techniques throughout Belgium. The results of this study are eagerly awaited and are expected by autumn.

Previous Successes Addressing PFAS and Broader Implications

This is not the first time Belgium has turned to cannabis for environmental cleanup. Industrial giant 3M has already successfully conducted a project using cannabis to remove PFAS from topsoil and purify groundwater at a site in Antwerp. However, this project also exposed 3M to thorough political and financial scrutiny. In 2022, studies conducted as part of a tunnel project revealed that 3M had released high levels of toxins into the local environment, sparking widespread outrage and an estimated $30 billion in cleanup costs.

The success of cannabis in these projects highlights its potential as a sustainable and effective means of combating soil contamination. As the world becomes increasingly aware of the dangers posed by PFAS, innovative solutions such as cannabis phytoremediation are crucial. In the United States, for example, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is poised to classify certain PFAS-based chemicals as “hazardous substances,” which would require companies to report releases and allow the EPA to pursue polluters more aggressively for remediation costs.

The Future of Cannabis in Soil Remediation

The use of cannabis for soil remediation represents a promising intersection between environmental science and sustainable agriculture. If the Lillo project proves successful, it could pave the way for broader application of this technique, not only in Belgium but worldwide. By absorbing PFAS into their leaves and stems, cannabis plants offer a method to clean contaminated soils without resorting to more disruptive and costly interventions.

Moreover, the dual benefit of using cannabis – cleaning the environment and contributing to the circular economy – makes it an attractive option. The parts of the plant that absorb PFAS can be safely destroyed, while the rest of the plant can still be used for various industrial and commercial purposes, enhancing the overall economic viability of the approach.

How PFAS Reach Humans

The persistence and widespread use of PFAS have led to significant environmental contamination, ultimately resulting in human exposure. Here’s a detailed overview of the various pathways through which PFAS reach humans:

Contaminated Water Sources

One of the main pathways for PFAS to enter the human body is through contaminated drinking water. PFAS can leach into groundwater from industrial sites, firefighting training areas, landfills, and areas where products containing PFAS are used. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), water contamination is a major concern because these chemicals do not break down in water and can travel long distances, affecting the drinking water supplies of many communities.

Food Consumption

Humans can ingest PFAS through contaminated food. This contamination can occur in several ways:

  • Food Packaging: PFAS are used in food packaging materials to make them grease and water-resistant. Over time, these chemicals can migrate from the packaging into the food.
  • Agricultural Products: PFAS can accumulate in crops grown on contaminated soil or irrigated with contaminated water. Livestock can also ingest contaminated feed and water, leading to accumulation in meat, milk, and eggs.
  • Fish and Seafood: Fish and other aquatic animals can accumulate PFAS from contaminated water bodies. Consuming fish from such waters is a direct way for PFAS to enter the human body.

Airborne Particles and Dust

PFAS can also be present in the air and dust. These particles can originate from industrial emissions, the use of certain consumer products, or the breakdown of materials containing PFAS. People can inhale these particles, which then enter the bloodstream through the respiratory system. Indoor air contamination can be particularly significant in homes where PFAS-containing products, such as stain-resistant carpets, upholstery fabrics, and water-repellent clothing, are used.

Consumer Products

Many common consumer products contain PFAS, and direct use of these products can lead to exposure. These include:

  • Non-Stick Cookware: PFAS are used in the manufacture of non-stick coatings for cookware. Although new regulations have reduced their use in some cases, older cookware may still pose a risk.
  • Water-Resistant Clothing and Fabrics: Clothing, shoes, and fabrics treated with PFAS to resist water can release these chemicals when worn and washed.
  • Personal Care Products: Some cosmetics, particularly waterproof mascara, eyeliners, sunscreens, and shampoos, contain PFAS. These chemicals can be absorbed through the skin or ingested accidentally.

Occupational PFAS Exposure

Workers in industries that manufacture or use PFAS are at greater risk of exposure. These include people working in:

  • Chemical Manufacturing: Direct handling of PFAS can lead to significant exposure.
  • Firefighting: Firefighters use foam containing PFAS, leading to occupational exposure through inhalation and skin contact.
  • Industrial Settings: Workers in the textile, leather, and paper industries, where PFAS are used for their water and stain-resistant properties, may be exposed through various processes.

Maternal Transfer

Pregnant women exposed to PFAS can pass these chemicals to their developing fetus through the placenta. Additionally, PFAS can be transmitted to infants through breastfeeding. This situation is particularly concerning given the potential health effects of PFAS on developing children.

Health Consequences

The persistence and bioaccumulative nature of PFAS mean that once they enter the human body, they remain for a long time. Research has linked PFAS exposure to various health problems, including:

  • Hormonal Disruption: PFAS can interfere with the endocrine system, affecting hormone levels and functions.
  • Immune System Effects: PFAS exposure has been associated with reduced vaccine response and increased risk of infections.
  • Cancer Risk: Some studies suggest a link between exposure and an increased risk of certain cancers, including kidney and testicular cancer.
  • Developmental Issues: Exposure in utero and early life can lead to developmental delays and other health problems in children.

(Featured image by Matteo Paganelli via Unsplash)

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