The Dirty Secret About CBD in the U.S.: Pesticides, Heavy Metals, And More
With cannabidiol (CBD) making its way into just about every conceivable product in the United States from nutraceuticals to cosmetics to clothing, most of us would assume it’s well regulated. Especially considering that hemp extracts and CBD oils are typically sold for their health benefits, why wouldn’t all these infusions go through the same safety protocols as other food additives?
You’d be forgiven if you found it surprising—even shocking—to know that hemp and all its wonderful extractions fall within a legal grey area in the U.S.
It may now be legal to cultivate, process, and sell, but there is currently no federal oversight for consumer safety. With the CBD market in the U.S. expected to hit $13.9 billion by 2024, one of California’s oldest cannabis and hemp testing laboratories is speaking out.
Josh Wurzer, President and co-founder of SC Labs, is calling for better federal oversight for CBD in consumables, to help ensure environmental toxins don’t end up in consumers’ bodies.
Phytoremediation: Hemp Readily Absorbs Environmental Toxins
The term ‘phytoremediation’ refers to the natural characteristics of certain plants that cause them to absorb toxins from their local environment. Specific plants have a higher propensity for taking on the chemicals found in their surroundings than others.
Hemp is one of the most potent phytoremediators in the plant kingdom. Over the last two decades, several notable studies have determined that hemp will vacuum up radioactive compounds, pesticides, herbicides, explosive residues, and heavy metals from contaminated soil. What’s more, mature plants are still useful for non-food-related products like fibers, biofuels, and more.
While we may soon see hemp deployed worldwide to clean up challenging environmental contaminants, this isn’t a trait we can simply turn off when we want to grow hemp for food or medicine. Hemp crops destined for extraction are absorbing toxins, which are already making their way into CBD-infused edibles, tinctures, and vape pens—according to recent reports.
Hemp Extracts Naturally Prone to Contamination
According to Wurser, “There is no getting away from contamination.”
As he explained, “Anything growing out in nature, especially near conventional agriculture, is going to be contaminated with things from its environment. If you are growing near conventional agriculture, you are going to have pesticide residue that drifts over, even if you don’t use them.”
Leaded gasoline or even more natural sources in the surrounding crop environment can also lead to contaminated CBD extractions. Considering hemp is already noted for its ability to hyper-accumulate toxins from the air, soil, and water with which it’s grown, it shouldn’t be a surprise to find them turning up in CBD oils, topicals, and vape products.
Calling for Federal Oversight to Protect Consumers
The booming popularity of CBD oils, tinctures, and infusions is a growing concern for consumer safety. The current regulations (or the lack thereof) fail to consider hemp’s natural phytoremediation properties.
Wurser pointed out, “We don’t have clear guidance on exactly what the tolerance for contaminants are, the specifications for what purity CBD should be, or what constitutes different grades of CBD. All these things we have for other nutraceutical products, we don’t have from the [Food and Drug Administration] yet — but [it’s] legalized…”
So, although the U.S. government has legalized hemp production, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) technically hasn’t yet cleared CBD for human consumption.
This has resulted in a patchwork of regulations in the U.S., with significant differences between one state and the next. (At the time of writing, SC Labs has two full-time staff dedicated to the ever-evolving landscape of CBD legislation across the country.)
With no federal oversight and a mix of state-based guidance, it means each CBD company is essentially responsible for keeping consumers of their products safe. While some producers may have experience from other highly regulated industries and employ extensive testing, others do not. Whether a CBD producer has good intentions or nefarious ones, there is no way to hold cultivators responsible.
The lack of oversight has led SC Labs, among others, to call for better federal regulation on hemp and CBD in consumer products. Thankfully, legislators are also increasingly calling for change. In the Spring of 2021, the Hemp Access and Consumer Safety Act was proposed in the Senate.
Although it still has to go through the approval process, in Wurser’s opinion, it’s a good start. He firmly believes that industry “needs the FDA to come in and provide some clear guidance, so we are not trying to regulate this state-by-state.”
What Can Consumers Do to Reduce the Risk of Contaminated Hemp and CBD in the U.S.?
While most CBD producers may be working hard to keep consumers safe, what happens if a CBD brand doesn’t have the experience, the resources, or the good intention to reduce toxin contamination?
Until federal regulation comes into play for CBD and hemp destined for consumables, we as shoppers must perform our own due diligence. Before throwing that bottle of CBD oil into your shopping cart, it’s important to determine the risk.
First, this means researching the manufacturer to see if they post third-party test results. Second, find out whether or not they subscribe to General Manufacturing Practices (GMPs).
Thirdly, Wurser also feels that larger retailers putting CBD products on their shelves tend to have more stringent quality standards (think Sephora and Walgreens). We all may want to support the smaller mom-and-pop shops, but the added layer of protection offered through national retail chains may reduce the risk of contamination in CBD oils and food products.
As a natural phytoremediator, hemp will readily absorb whatever contaminates exist in its environment. Without proper production protocols and third-party testing, hemp extractions like CBD oil can contain unacceptable levels of heavy metals, pesticides, and more. (Even if regulations in Canada may be more stringent than in the U.S., consumers should still educate themselves about the contamination risk, especially if they are buying products on the unregulated market.)
Why Regulation and Education Are Urgently Needed to Keep Consumers Safe
According to one recent review published in Frontiers of Pharmacology, heavy metal contamination including cadmium, lead, magnesium, copper, and mercury has been measured in cannabis. As per the authors, “Most heavy metals have low biodegradability, which allows them to bioaccumulate up the food chain and persist in the body long-term causing a wide range of health problems.”