Heavy Metal Testing: Why it’s Important for Cannabis
It’s no secret the cannabis industry has been highly unregulated. When CBD products first started to surface, no one questioned where the plant was grown or if the soil it grew in had been tested for heavy metals (like lead or arsenic). No one questioned if the plant had been sprayed with toxic pesticides or had mold growing on it (a very common problem). Certainly, no one questioned if there was really any CBD in a product that was labeled ‘CBD’. To no fault of their own, most consumers just weren’t informed enough to know any different. Today we talk about heavy metal testing in Cannabis and why it’s important.
The beneficial properties of the cannabis plant are very real and for some, the potential of its therapeutic effects can be life-changing. However, this miraculous plant, like any other plant, is only as healthy as the soil it’s planted in and only as safe as what its been exposed to.
Many of the herbal products that we consume on a daily basis have the same inconsistencies. The laws generally do not implement strict quality controls for the testing of the harmful compounds that may be found in our favorite supplements, which is why it’s important to do your research on the manufacturer and possibly even asking the company for test results.
Just like the quote by Ann Wigmore in reference to the food you eat being “either the safest and most powerful form of medicine or the slowest form of poison”, so too is the cannabis you consume.
The only way to know what’s in a product (in terms of potency) and what’s not in a product (in terms of contamination) is through third-party testing. However, even the testing system has its flaws. Cannabis testing labs have major inconsistencies in quality control. Most labs themselves aren’t regulated by any qualifying agencies, leaving consumers with no idea if their products have been tested by a reputable lab to ensure their consistency, effectiveness or safety.
With much of the focus on testing for cannabinoid profile and pesticides, this article aims to shine some light on heavy metals (why they are found in the soil and how this affects cannabis). We’ll also look at best practices for third party testing as well as how to make sure you have a quality product that is most importantly, safe for consumption.
Why Would Heavy Metals be Found in Soil?
Heavy metals are naturally occurring elements that are found throughout the Earth’s soils. In many cases, these compounds are primarily due to weathering and geology. It’s inevitable that we are exposed to heavy metals through the air we breathe, the food we eat and even the water we drink. Common heavy metals found in soils include nickel, zinc, manganese and copper. Often, however, more dangerous metals such as lead, arsenic, cadmium and mercury can also be found in high concentrations in the earth’s soils.
Unfortunately, heavy metals can also be the result of industrial and agricultural pollution and runoff leading to the wide distribution of heavy metals into the environment. Heavy metals in agriculture can be caused by fertilizers (mostly phosphate fertilizers), biosolids and other potential soil amendments. Industrial sources of heavy metals into our environment include mining, metal processing in refineries, coal burning in power plants, petroleum combustion, nuclear power stations, plastics, textiles, wood preservation and paper processing plants.
Elemental mercury is also present in the atmosphere and because it can exist as a vapor, it can be absorbed into the soil as well as plant surfaces. Fortunately, the amounts in most cases are at ultra-trace levels, unless a site has been specifically impacted by mercury-containing waste.
How do Heavy Metals Impact Cannabis?
The cannabis plant is a known bioaccumulator, which means it can absorb a large majority of whatever its root system comes into contact with, including toxins like heavy metals. If the plant material contains heavy metals absorbed from its soils, then the oils extracted from the plant will also contain these contaminants.
In some cases, this can be seen as a benefit for cleaning polluted soil, in a process called phytoremediation. Plants that have the ability to draw toxins out of the soil are deliberately planted to remove heavy metals, pesticides, oil spills etc. These plants are then harvested and the soil is left significantly free of contaminants. While this makes cannabis an excellent choice for cleaning polluted lands, it can be dangerous to those using cannabis-derived products for their therapeutic effects, especially if there is a medical condition already present. Exposure to heavy metals can pose serious health risks. For this reason, growers and manufacturers of consumable products must diligently test their plants and products to be able to give consumers an accurate profile of their potency and safety.
The Importance of ISO Testing for Cannabis
A major issue in the cannabis industry is the lack of consistency in quality control. Consumers are forced to trust product ingredients, dosing suggestions and claims based on what the producers write on their websites. An informed consumer might ask for a Certificate of Analysis (COA) from the producer to show third-party lab test results. The problem with this is there is no required standardization across testing facilities. Many of the labs that have emerged to fill the need for specialized cannabis testing are not regulated themselves, meaning there is no set requirements for equipment, operating procedures, certifications or qualifications of lab technicians. Many labs are not inspected or graded by a higher regulatory agency. Without standardization across all facilities, test results can be wildly inconsistent. What good is a COA from a third-party lab that does not meet any kind of standards themselves?
Fortunately as states lean towards legal status, regulators are requiring certain accreditation measures for cannabis labs to be licensed. International Organization for Standardization (ISO) accreditation, known as ISO 17025, is the highest recognized quality standard in the world for calibration and testing laboratories, ensuring technical competence and ability to produce precise and accurate test and calibration data. ISO accreditation sets the standards used by federal, state and independent laboratories to ensure the safety of our food and water supply.
Cannabis requires unique preparations and methods of testing that can be extremely challenging due to its complex composition and various concentration levels from different compounds. ISO accreditation standards provide confidence to cannabis consumers that testing is performed properly and to a universally accepted standard. To qualify for the accreditation, laboratories must conform to the ISO standards in all areas, including procedure, calibration of instruments and equipment, as well as properly staffed and trained technicians who have met specific academic credentials. In the ‘Standards for Cannabis Testing Laboratories’ by The Cannabis Safety Institute, it is stated that conducting proper analytical chemistry should be done by a full-time on-site chemist, with a PhD in a relevant field or at least eight years of experience specific to analytical chromatography. Overall, these required qualifications can be costly and time consuming, which may deter many of the recent start-up cannabis labs.
Cannabis Testing Panels
In order for a cannabis testing laboratory to be fully accredited, its scope must include identification and quantitation of the components and potential contaminants that are relevant to public health. These labs do not simply report a “pass/fail” but quantify the exact level of contaminant present. The following 5 panels are crucial to ensuring a product is consistent as well as safe for human consumption.
Potency – This panel analyzes active compounds to determine the cannabinoid profile (i.e. amount of CBD, THC and other cannabinoids). This is an important testing panel to tell you the strength and potential of your product. A Full Spectrum product will show a range of beneficial cannabinoids, whereas an isolate will show only one isolated cannabinoid.
Pesticide – Pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and other chemical additives are widely used at different stages of the grow process to stimulate plant growth or stunt parasitic growth. While the plant itself will respond to these chemicals and may grow in size or grow in potency, these elements can be toxic to humans. This panel tests for pesticides present in the final product, down to the part per million.
Microbiological – This testing ensures safety of the final product by identifying the type and level of microorganisms, if present. Exposure to high levels of microorganisms, such as molds, bacteria are known to cause health problems and can be particularly dangerous to people with existing health conditions. This testing will report the discovery of any disease, microbes, foreign fibers, pests or evidence of mishandling.
Residual Solvent – Most extraction methods involve using a solvent to extract the active ingredients from the plant material. However, in a finished product, there should be no trace of the original solvent used because they may contain potentially hazardous components that can affect human health. Whether it’s butane, propane, ethanol or another solvent, this panel will show any residual amounts down to parts per million.
Heavy Metals – This panel detects heavy metal concentrations such as arsenic, cadmium, lead and mercury down to the part per billion.
Ananda Hemp’s Commitment to Quality
At Ananda Hemp we have developed a comprehensive Quality Control (QC) protocols to ensure reliability in bringing safe hemp extract products to market. Through a vertically integrated and managed supply chain we are able to develop a long chain testing protocols. Ultimate from seed to bottle we employ five different testing checkpoints between you and your product. Potentially, this may be the most robust testing protocol in the industry.
Our Testing and Checkpoint Protocol
Before harvest, our plants are first tested by the Kentucky Department of Agriculture for potency to ensure THC compliance.
Upon harvest, we test green material samples generated by our farmers for potency and pesticides while quarantining the material in barns until appropriate test results are achieved. The material then gets tagged, bagged and a unique lot number is assigned based on the farm location from which it was derived.
After employing short path distillation, we test again for solvents and potency to examine the concentration of our extracts and ensure they are free from residual solvents. A new lot number is assigned to each 5kg batch of extract that correlates previously to the green material bag ID.
Finally, the last step is where our product is actually made. The concentrated extract is mixed with carrier oils, then bottled, encapsulated or blended into lotions for topical application. Prior to this blending we test all incoming, externally sourced ingredients (eg. MCT oil) for pesticides, heavy metals, allergens and microbes. Too often in the hemp industry, companies with sound testing parameters wind up with traces of heavy metals in their products. Often, it is not even a result of the companies hemp extract, but an externally sourced ingredient.
Once production is complete, we retest each batch of final the product again for the complete panel of potency, pesticide, solvent, microbial and aflatoxins, heavy metals and sometimes even terpenes.
Once these final checks are in place and approved by our Quality Control manager, the product is released for shipment to our customers.
How we Determine Pass/Fail
As discussed, the CBD industry is pretty much the wild west in its current state. With no official guidance from regulatory bodies on how to implement QA/QC procedures companies like Ananda Hemp are garnered the responsibility to self regulate.
The American Herbal Products Association (AHPA) is a trusted organization that has set the precedent on how to regulate herbally extracted products for heavy metal content. The table below lists the recommendations for heavy metal limits set forth by the AHPA. At Ananda Hemp, we are committed to providing our customers with the safest products on the market. Therefore, we set our standards at ¼ the AHPA limits.
|Contaminating Metal||Limit, ug/daily dose|
COA Lookup Tool
We believe in full transparency in every finished product sold. Located right on our website, our COA Lookup Tool allows our customers to type in the batch/lot number listed on their purchased product to be able to view the third party test results from the exact batch from which their product was made. The tool can be found here: https://anandahemp.com/coa-lookup-tool/
Below are two COAs of heavy metals testing on our products. The first is for our Spectrum 600 tincture. The second COA (112811) is a batch of 1.5 million capsules that became our Ananda Hemp 30 count & 60 count and Ananda Professional 30 count & 60 count products.