Resources
Heavy Metals

Cannabis, and industrial hemp in particular, is often used to help decontaminate polluted soil. It’s so effective at up-taking and withstanding heavy metals, it has been used for phytoremediation in Chernobyl, the site of a nuclear power plant meltdown. 

Above regulatory limits, these metals—arsenic, cadmium, lead, mercury and others—can cause health problems such as cancer and heart disease. These elements exist in trace amounts throughout all agriculture. With the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, the abundance of these metals may increase in the soil and water. Due to the cannabis plant’s affinity for absorbing metals from soil, air, and water, it’s essential that every harvest batch undergoes heavy metals testing. 

It’s also important to note that the extraction process may raise levels of these elements in the final product. Even if the flower used for the extraction process had been tested and approved, the extract can still have levels of heavy metals higher than acceptable limits.

Essential metals such as copper, iron, manganese, nickel and zinc are beneficial for plant and human health at the right levels. Micronutrient levels can be used to monitor the health of the plant throughout the course of development.


Toxic Metals

Arsenic is a well known poison and carcinogen, linked to cause various forms of cancer.

Cadmium, a byproduct of zinc, is shown to cause kidney damage, cancer, and bone fractures.

Lead is known to cause fatal health problems and developmental delays.

Mercury, a byproduct of burning coal, can cause severe neurological damage.

These metals and others can cause serious health effects if ingested. Strict limits are set on these toxic metals to ensure consumer safety.


Essential Metals

Other metals, such as copper, iron, manganese, nickel, and zinc, play a beneficial role in plant growth and development. At the right level, these elements improve the plant’s nutritional level, growth, and yield. These metals are also beneficial to humans if taken in low doses.

 

Heavy Metals Testing

Trichome Analytical tests for mercury, lead, cadmium, arsenic, antimony, copper, chromium, iron, manganese, zinc, nickel, and selenium. Utilizing an Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometer, we are able to see heavy metal concentrations as low as one part per billion.

Pesticides

Pesticides present a unique challenge to the cannabis industry. There are dozens of industrial pesticides on the market, but there are no federal guidelines for use on cannabis, although there are now a limited number registered with the Environmental Protection Agency for federally legal hemp.

With each state setting its own limits on pesticides, growers and testing labs alike have to be ready to meet the standards. And the stakes are high: Pesticides are hazardous to human health, and going over a pesticide action level can result in the destruction of an entire harvest. Additionally, the extraction process may raise levels of pesticide compounds in the final product, similar to the ways in which heavy metals become concentrated after processing. So even if the plant material used for extraction had been tested and approved, the final extract can still have levels of pesticides higher than acceptable limits.


Acephate

Mainly used for controlling aphids. While it is relatively safe for human exposure, it produces toxic fumes when burned, making it a potential concern for smokers.


Chlorpyrifos

Used on crops to kill insects and worms. Human exposure is linked to developmental and autoimmune disorders.


Fipronil

The main ingredient in many flea control products for pets. Its effectiveness against a wide range of insects also makes it useful for crops. Ingestion by humans can cause nausea, vomiting, agitation, and other symptoms, and the EPA has classified it as a possible carcinogen.


Malathion

The most common organophosphate insecticide in the US, widely used for crops and public pest control. Although it has low toxicity, it has a possible link to ADHD in children.


Naled

Primarily used for mosquito control. Naled gained public awareness in 2015 and 2016, when the CDC recommended aerial spraying to prevent the spread of the Zika virus. It is not a carcinogen and not dangerous to humans at low exposures. However, repeated exposure in pregnant women can lead to developmental problems.

Microbial Contaminants

Microbes—a large class of contaminants that include bacteria and fungi—can be difficult to detect without rigorous, accurate testing. Microbes can be found on nearly every surface and in the air we breathe, and not all are dangerous. But certain bacterial strains, when concentrated in cannabis plants, can cause serious adverse health effects, especially for immunocompromised individuals. 

Most states require microbial testing from third-party laboratories, although thresholds of acceptance, type of testing, and microbial panels for these contaminants vary by state. Some states, like California, have zero tolerance for certain microbial contamination. 

Microbial contamination can occur during plant growth, harvest, storage or extraction, which mandates strict adherence to environmental protocols and both pre- and post-harvest testing. Below, we explore a few common microbial contaminants of cannabis plants.


Salmonella

This bacteria is commonly found on contaminated food or plant products and can cause mild to serious gastrointestinal issues, including vomiting and diarrhea. Some salmonella strains can cause infection in the blood, joints or nervous system. Children and immunocompromised individuals are most at risk for infection


Shiga toxin-producing E. coli

Strains of totally harmless E. coli bacteria are found in human and animal intestines and are necessary for healthy digestive tracts. However, there are six strains that cause adverse reactions in humans, the most common of which is Shiga toxin-producing E. coli, or STEC for short. These strains cause illness—usually diarrhea and fever—when a person drinks contaminated water or ingests contaminated food or plants. Contamination of plants typically occurs as a result of exposure to tainted water or animal feces.


Staphylococcus aureus

Staphylococcus aureus is a common bacteria that is easily transmitted between humans and animals. It causes everything from mild skin infections and boils to life-threatening conditions like toxic shock syndrome or infection of the heart. The bacteria is easily carried through air droplets, such as when an infected person sneezes or coughs.


Pseudomonas

This type of bacteria grows easily on vegetables and plants, especially in humid environments like indoor cultivation facilities and greenhouses. It poses a higher risk of causing health complications in those with compromised immune systems. When consumed, pseudomonas can cause intestinal issues. When inhaled, it can cause serious lung infections and pneumonia.

Fungi, Mold and Mycotoxins

Because of humid growing and storage environments, cannabis crops are particularly susceptible to yeast, mold and fungal contamination—a cause for serious concern. Mold and fungi can be found nearly everywhere on the planet—decaying leaves, for example, contain certain strains of the generally harmless fungi aspergillus. However, when concentrated, heated and inhaled, aspergillus can cause serious lung damage and infection in immunocompromised individuals. 

Some fungi, specifically molds (known as microfungi), produce secondary compounds called mycotoxins. For example, in addition to causing health issues themselves, certain species of aspergillus can also produce the harmful mycotoxins aflatoxin and ochratoxin as a result of poor plant storage or growing conditions. These mycotoxins are known to cause adverse health conditions ranging from gastrointestinal issues to cancer to kidney failure.

Testing for contaminants including yeast, fungi and mold occurs as part of a typical microbial screening process using quantitative Polymerase Chain Reaction (qPCR) assays. Mycotoxin testing is done via LC-MS/MS. But because the presence of some fungi and mycotoxins can be difficult to detect, it’s essential that you work with a laboratory that has invested in modern equipment and processes to ensure confidence in analysis. 

The bottom line: Exposure to molds and fungi, especially in materials that individuals smoke or ingest, should be strenuously avoided. These contaminants can cause serious health issues in individuals and, under certain state regulations, cannot be present in any cannabis plant material.


Aspergillus

This grouping of molds is typically harmless, but they can trigger ashmatic reactions, serious lung infection or even death, especially in immunocompromised individuals. There are more than 180 species of aspergillus, with only 40 causing harm in humans. Four species account for the vast majority of infection: A. fumigatus, A. flavus, A. niger and A. terreus. This type of mold is commonly found in cannabis that has been improperly stored. Despite its significant health risks, only a handful of states require testing for this contaminant.


Penicillium

Within this large genus of fungi, several species are commonly used in product manufacturing, from cheesemaking (Penicillium camemberti) to antibiotics (Penicillium chrysogenum). However, some species produce toxic molds on fruits and plant matter. These molds, like Penicillium verrucosum and Penicillium expansum, can create mycotoxins. This extremely common genus of fungi can also be found indoors in high concentrations.


Botrytis

Commonly known as gray mold, botrytis is easily transferred from plant to plant, especially in greenhouses or indoor cultivation facilities, and can cause lung infection and allergic reaction in humans when inhaled.


Mucormycetes

A common environmental fungi, found most typically in soil and in decaying organic matter. At low levels, it doesn’t affect healthy individuals. But those who are undergoing chemotherapy or are on medications that lower their immune response may have a severe reaction to exposure to this fungi, resulting in a condition called mucormycosis.


Penicillium simplicissimum and Penicillium griseofulvum

These species of fungi can produce mycotoxins like patulin, which is  particularly harmful if inhaled—especially by immunocompromised individuals.


Ochratoxin

This mycotoxin can be generated by aspergillus, penicillium and other species of fungi. Often, contamination by this mycotoxin is the result of poor storage or a humid environment, which allows this toxin to flourish. It can cause kidney disease and immune-system issues, and it is particularly potent when inhaled.


Aflatoxin

A mycotoxin produced by various strains of aspergillus. It is a known carcinogen and can cause liver cancer in those who are heavily exposed to it.

Residual Solvents

Residual solvents are byproducts of the processes used to extract cannabinoids and terpenes in the production of concentrated extracts. The extraction process often utilizes alcohol, butane, or propane. Even solventless extraction methods with CO2 or water can result in toxic impurities lingering in the final product.

Certain solvents can cause adverse health effects like cardiac damage or even cancer if contaminants, like benzene (a butane derivative) end up in the final product. With the rise in popularity of high-potency cannabis extracts, it is of utmost importance to have all extracted products tested for residual solvents. We use headspace gas chromatography and mass spectrometry to determine the presence of any residual solvents.

Additional Services

Depending on your operation’s goals for R&D, product development or state-mandated regulations, you may also benefit from testing for additional elements such as moisture content, water activity and foreign materials in your plant, extract or infused product.


Moisture content

Moisture content, expressed as a percentage, demonstrates how much moisture is in your cannabis plant material. Understanding this is vital to accurately determining cannabinoid content levels.


Water activity

Water activity is a bit more complex, but it’s essential for crop protection and consumer safety. This measurement indicates how much water is in your plant material—in order to inhibit mold growth, water activity should be less than about 0.65 aw. Otherwise, conditions are perfect for the development of molds and associated mycotoxins. Water activity also affects the shelf life of cannabis products, and water activity levels that are too low may compromise product quality such as terpene content. 


Foreign materials screening

Certain instruments and techniques, like microscopy, can help identify foreign materials in cannabis. Foreign materials include: combustion byproducts, cinders, molds, sand, soil, dirt, hair, rodent feces, insect parts and other foreign objects.

Start Testing Today

Ensure your pre-harvest hemp is USDA compliant, and guarantee quality assurance for your post harvest flower, extracts or infused products.

Order Testing