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Hemp, a non-psychoactive variety of cannabis sativa, one of the three main subtypes of the cannabis plant, has long been known to be an effective alternative to cotton clothing and nylon ropes, but it is also being harnessed for a more surprising application: acting as a vacuum cleaner for toxic substances found in soil.

This shocking find was first made public when hemp was used to cull heavy metals from soil in contaminated fields near Chernobyl in the 1990s. According to researcher, Vyacheslav Dushenkov, the experiment was a great success.  Dushenkov excitedly reported that, “For specific contaminants that we tested, hemp demonstrated very good phytoremediation properties.”

That kind of phytoremediation, whereby plants (phyto) can collect heavy metals, was confirmed in a 2015 study when researchers identified hemp genes glutathione‐disulfidereductase (GSR) and phospholipase D‐α(PLDα) and wrote on the  “heavy metals accumulation in hemp plants’ leaves collected from the contaminated site. This shows the ability of the hemp plant to tolerate heavy metals, perhaps due to the presence of stress tolerance genes.”

But back to Chernobyl. When the April 26, 1986 Chernobyl explosion caused the most disastrous nuclear disaster the world had ever seen, the fallout from the radiation poisoning was horrific. Farmers were also concerned their soil would be irrevocably harmed by the toxic metals leaching into the soil. When scientists and the company Phytotech began to grow industrial hemp around the abandoned Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Pripyat, Ukraine, they found hemp to significantly reduce soil toxicity. 

“Hemp is proving to be one of the best phyto-remediative plants we have been able to find,” said Dushenkov to reporters.

Phytotech, a company specializing in phytoremediation, has claimed that hemp can also be used to clean up metals, pesticides, solvents, explosives, crude oil, and toxins leaching from landfills.
In 2012, more research results strengthened the proposal to use hemp as a toxin cleaner. In a paper published in 2012 in Applied Biochemistry and Biotechnology,  Chinese scientists found hemp to successfully absorb cadmium from the soil. Cadmium can be very dangerous, and when left in soil can slip into the food chain, and eventually lead to severe joint and spinal pain in humans. High levels of cadmium exposure are known to damage the kidneys and may be a link to certain cancers.

Beyond the enviro-rehab that hemp gave to Chernobyl, the Italian area of Puglia is using hemp for the same purpose, but to get rid of toxins spewed from a nearby steel plant. In the past five years, hemp production in Puglia has soared from three hectares to 300, with about 100 farmers in the area planting seeds to help vacuum the nickel, lead, and other toxic substances. Cultivating hemp is legal in Italy, but only if farmers inform the police that they are planting it for industrial use. 

The hemp idea worked, and Italian farmers such as Vincenzo Fornano are ecstatic to see hemp offer them an opportunity to clean up their land’s soil. But they aren’t clinking wine glasses yet, because they’d like to see hemp being applied beyond soil decontamination.

“We have to start giving back what we took from the environment and provide an alternative employment to our children,” Fornaro told media. “For now we use hemp only for industrial processing. I hope in the future we can use it also for nourishment. But what is certain is that we will surround the [steel] plant with hemp.”

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