Cannabis plants may contain cancer-causing heavy metals, study warns

A NEW study warns that cannabis users could be ingesting carcinogenic metals when they smoke marijuana.

Researchers in Pennsylvania have found that cannabis plants can absorb cancer-causing heavy metals such as lead, mercury, and cadmium from soils.

"The heavy-metal content of cannabis is not regulated; therefore, consumers could unknowingly be exposed to these toxic metals," said Louis Bengyella, assistant research professor of plant science at Penn State University. 

The strains most susceptible to heavy-metal absorption include those bred specifically for 'phytoremediation,' which is when a plant is grown to remove elemental pollutants or lower its bioavailability in soil.

The researchers found that the cannabis strains used for phytoremediation possess specific physical traits such as long-stem length, high roots, and dependence on few nutrients for survival — which can perpetuate the absorption of heavy metals. 

The team also found that lead, cadmium, and chromium specifically can travel up through the plant's stalk and into the leaves and flowers. 

Heavy metals seeping into cannabis crops, which are later harvested and smoked by humans, pose a very serious health risk, according to the study.

Some of these risks may include cancer, neurological issues, and damaged enzymes, proteins, lipids, and nucleic acids. 

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For cancer patients who are prescribed medical marijuana for its pain-relieving and nausea-reducing effects, the risk is even greater.

And because heavy metals are rarely metabolized, and therefore, can accumulate in areas of the body, the risk is ongoing.

However, there are ways to lower a cannabis plants' chances of heavy-metal absorption.

The team of researchers advises growers to pick farmland that is heavy metal-free and grow cannabis strains that are not bred for phytoremediation. 

Growers should also conduct both air quality analyses and soil pH tests, and avoid growing crops in abandoned industrial sites. 

"The problem is at the level of the consumer who uses cannabis products, but the solution must come at the agricultural level," said Bengyella.

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