March 16, 2020

Sifting For Heavy Metals In Colorado Cannabis

A Tech Moment with AgriScience Labs

After facing a national health crisis with the vape epidemic, the American cannabis industry earned a plethora of fair criticism. With products such as vitamin e acetate sold as healthy cutting agents on the market mere years ago, it’s paramount to upkeep a standard for testing and policing products as an industry.

New Heavy Metal Testing Requirements in Colorado 

“From molds to microbials, pesticides, and heavy metals, cannabis products can contain a wide variety of products if we’re not careful in how these products are tested,” Kristina Etter of Cannabis Tech said. In this Tech Moment with AgriScience Labs, a cannabis testing lab in Colorado, she exclaimed, “Whether you’re vaping, smoking, or ingesting cannabis, consumers deserve to know what’s in these products.” 

The Marijuana Enforcement Decision of Colorado agrees with this statement, and they have concluded there are enough state-certified testing labs capable of testing cannabis samples for the presence of metals. Now, they require all flower to be tested. Etter had the privilege to speak with Supervisory Analyst at AgriScience Labs, Chris Henning, on this topic. Henning started with AgriScience two years ago in the microbial department, and previously he had worked as a metal analyst for three years, an experience which has informed his work today. 

“As of January 1st, 2020, any harvest batch created this year has to be tested for heavy metals,” Henning explained on A Tech Moment. “Those regulations fall into three different categories. There’s inhalant, which is all of our flower, which is the only thing required to be tested. Also inhalant being anything you smoke, concentrates, things like that. The other two categories — and all the other testing goes live on April 1st — are edibles and topicals, as well as concentrates.”

Controlling and Testing for Heavy Metals 

Although there are a variety of metals which shouldn’t be present in cannabis, the Colorado testing is focused. “The required testing goes for the big four as they call them: arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury,” Henning said.

These highly toxic metals have no positive use for the human body. Additionally, many metals are carcinogens, which further proves the danger of their presence in products meant for consumption. Due to these risks, the state of Colorado aims to remove any product with dangerous levels of heavy metals from the marketplace. 

AgriScience Labs is a full-service cannabis lab offering potency testing, pesticide testing, residual solvents testing, terpenes testing, Vitamin E Acetate testing, and total yeast, mold, and microbial testing. Their laboratory updates with new testing options as the market require them. 

The method of testing used by AgriScience Labs is based on the EPA method. Using this technique involves employing blanks and quality control samples. For every batch of flower, AgriScience runs two samples of the flower to compare against each other, in addition to a spiked sample which was treated with metals to prove they can retrieve metals from samples, and a blank to confirm that the process doesn’t add metals to the samples. 

How the Tests are Stacking Up

“It seems that every sample we see has trace amounts of some of these metals in them,” Henning admitted. “Which is completely normal, because cannabis is an amazing plant that can pull these metals out of the soil and also tolerate them and hold onto them once they’re inside. We’re seeing trace levels of arsenic and cadmium across the board almost entirely. "Lead is more commonly seen with plants that are grown outside. So in the Colorado soil, which is high in lead, you see that in these plants. Our fail rate is fairly low, around or less than 10% of things we test fail.”

While these metals may sound scary, it’s traditional for consumables to have a threshold for them. Food commonly contains trace amounts of metals, and cannabis is no different. The limit for arsenic in cannabis is .2 parts per million, while trace amounts refer to around 0.05 parts per million. The majority of samples are well below the threshold for safe use. 

Meanwhile, InfiniteCal, a testing lab in California, found that 80% of illicit products they were able to procure through an innovative buyback program were unfit for consumption. While California is a different market, the divide between legal and illegal cannabis is clear. Trustworthy products mostly have certifiable test results from a reputable lab. 

Will The MED Heavy Metal Regulations Be Subject To Change? 

With labs able to perform the task the MED has set out, the restrictions on heavy metals are likely to stay the same. “So far, it doesn’t look like the MED has set their sights on any new regulations,” Henning explained. “I could see them potentially adding more metals to that list, things like chromium, cobalt, copper, other toxic metals in high amounts.”

The presence of any of these metals isn’t necessarily due to mistakes in cultivation. As several soils, including the ground in Colorado, contain metals, cannabis naturally absorbs them through phytoremediation. Even some rooting solutions have been found to contain arsenic levels at levels up to 8 parts per million. 

Cannabis consumption existed thousands of years ago. Yet, thousands of years ago, people weren’t using fuels, fertilizers, or chemical pesticides. As the world changed, so have standards for responsible consumption. Restrictions on heavy metals are a reasonable and critical step forward for the cannabis industry everywhere.