Hemp science is now advancing in leaps and bounds compared to the stagnation of the previous few decades. One significant area of research that is currently receiving particular attention is phytoremediation, or decontamination of soil—although the fact that hemp decontaminates soil has been known for some time.


Hemp and the Chernobyl Phytoremediation Project

For almost two decades, industrial hemp growing in the environs of the abandoned Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Pripyat, Ukraine has been helping to reduce soil toxicity.

In 1990, just four years after the initial explosion, the Soviet administration of the time requested that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) assess the environmental situation. In the 30km exclusion zone surrounding Chernobyl, high concentrations of various toxic metals including lead, cesium-137, strontium-90 and plutonium were found in the soil, as well as in the tissues of plants and animals.

In response, it was decided that a concerted effort to reduce soil contamination through the use of beneficial plants would be undertaken. This process, known as phytoremediation, was implemented almost immediately.

Which Plants are Useful in Phytoremediation?

Various plants have been utilized in Chernobyl for their ability to take up specific contaminants—two brassica varieties to remove chromium, lead, copper and nickel, maize to take up lead (various studies have demonstrated the excellent lead-uptake capability of this important crop), and more recently, sunflower and hemp.

Sunflower plantings began in 1996 subsequent to the development of a variety that promised hitherto unheard-of efficiency of decontamination; hemp plantings soon followed, in 1998. Slavik Dushenkov, a research scientist with Phytotech, one of the organisations behind the hemp plantings, stated that “hemp is proving to be one of the best phyto-remediative plants we have been able to find”.

As well as in Ukraine, rural areas in neighbouring Belarus were affected by the Chernobyl incident., Authorities there have also considered the use of hemp as a decontaminant. However, it is not clear if any programs involving hemp were ever implemented.

Where Else is Hemp Used in Phytoremediation?

In Puglia, Italy, industrial hemp is being used on a wide scale to assist in the decontamination of some of Europe’s most polluted soils. The Ilva steel plant, the largest of its kind in Europe, has poisoned local soil, plants, animals, and human residents for decades with its toxic emissions. Within a 20km radius of the plant, grazing livestock is prohibited.

Since 2012, when the extent of the crisis became apparent, farmers have planted millions of cannabis plants in an effort to decontaminate the soil. In that time, the local area of hemp cultivation has increased from 3 to 300 hectares. Around 100 farmers are growing hemp, and the movement has even proved to be an economic stimulus. A new hemp processing plant has opened to convert the harvest into fibre for clothing and construction.

Since the devastating Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant accident in 2011, there have been calls for Japan to implement hemp phytoremediation. However, due to the Cannabis Control Law forced into Japanese law by the occupying U.S. powers in 1948, hemp may only be grown under license – and these are highly restricted and difficult to obtain.

A few months after the incident, Fukushima residents began to plant millions of sunflowers, as well as field mustard and amaranth, in an attempt to soak up cesium and other toxins from the soil. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency also began an experimental project involving sunflowers in 2011, and various projects since have investigated algae, buckwheat and spinach for their uptake abilities. But it seems that hemp has not been utilized to date.


Mandi Kerr
Author: Mandi Kerr