The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) faces its most recent dilemma: understanding and reducing the presence of per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in our ecosystem. These substances, dating back to the 1940s, have been employed in consumer products.

PFAS, previously not a concern, gained attention in 1998 when the EPA revealed their inability to break down after release, earning them the moniker “forever chemicals.” As carcinogens, high-level ingestion can result in severe illness for both humans and animals.

Environmental lawyer Grant Gilezan, from Dykema, has dedicated himself to understanding and addressing the issue of PFAS. Gilezan recently spoke to Greenway, sharing his insights into PFAS and its potential impact on the cannabis industry.

Grant Gilezan | Dykema

“PFAS contamination can enter hemp and cannabis products through various pathways such as irrigation water, nutrient delivery systems, and oil,” Gilezan explained. “Short chain PFAS have also been found to bioaccumulate around the root zone of potted plants since the container can act as a trap for that PFAS to be in it. So what does all that mean? It means that if PFAS chemicals are in the potted soil or the water used to irrigate the plants, particularly hemp cannabis plants, then it will be absorbed into those plants. When someone ingests the cannabis, they will also ingest the PFAS in the cannabis plant, particularly those long chains.”

Where can PFAS be found?

They are found in consumer, commercial, and industrial products such as nonstick cookware, food packaging, cosmetics, and even medical applications. They are in plastics that go into food packaging and cardboard and all of that. 

They can be found in firefighting foams as well. So when you think about decades where certain fire events couldn’t just be put out with water because they’re involving chemicals and so you had to use a fire extinguisher. It is found in the foam used to put out fires. 

How does PFAS spread over time?

Our environment and plants consist mostly of water, which makes it easier for short-chain PFAS to mingle and move about more readily.

They just don’t degrade or break down into different chemicals over time. Over time, they stay as is whether in the soil or in sediment. Then they can be found at rivers and just water sources in general. 

Unfortunately, once they’re there, they can get absorbed by plants, consumed by animals, or then consumed by humans, or other animals. They have that very prolific, and potential impact. 

There is no half-life for PFAS. There’s no projection to say that if you happen to have PFAS in your backyard soil that you can give it a couple years then it will just reduce over time. With PFAS it will just stay there.

What kind of problems can PFAS cause for the cannabis industry?

On both the packaging side and on the actual plant material side of it; regulation is really being driven at the state level.

The cannabis industry is still a relatively new and dynamic industry. If this issue arises to places being shut down to decontaminate, it could really pose some challenges, if not wreak havoc, on supply chains.

It would be a smart move to understand how much of it really is in your packaging right now, and if it is there, to now find where that is coming from so you can work on lowering PFAS levels. 

How can companies prepare to address this issue and ensure their products are safe?

The first step would be to hold a facility or portfolio audit. Those audits can help in various ways in terms of streamlining energy use and Costs. Streamlining your carbon footprint but also reducing the potential risks to your products. 

What the cannabis industry should be employing is like an environmental technical consultant. Somebody who can come in, who can evaluate the technical makeup. They are the ones that over the past decades have really led the charge on these sorts of audits, and they certainly would be the ones best primed now to work with these companies and give advice on what steps to take.

The cleanup process for this can be very costly and lengthy. Doing these sorts of portfolio product packaging and audits would be the best way to get a handle on this and then start organizing your supply chain. 

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