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Phytoremediation: Planting Hemp to Clean Toxic Soil

Updated: Jun 12

There are many places in the world, both foreign and domestic, where the soil has become toxic. This happens either because of naturally occurring pollution or by human intervention. Toxic soil makes it impossible to plant in that location, and can have disastrous effects environmentally on the surrounding areas. Researchers are always on the lookout for ways to reverse the effects of soil pollution.

Although research is still in its early stages, scientists believe that hemp may provide the fix they have been looking for. In this article we will explore the story behind this revelation, and the potential it can have for the hemp industry going forward.


After the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986, surrounding areas in Ukraine reported high levels of heavy metals in their soil. Ilya Raskin was one of the scientists who were working on figuring out a way to purify the soil. He coined the term phytoremediation, which was his theory that plants would be able to draw the metals out of the soil, thereby purifying it from contamination. In order to test the theory, the scientists planted hemp in the areas surrounding Chernobyl in the 1990s. Some of Raskin’s fellow scientists reported that the theory was proved, and that hemp was particularly capable of performing phytoremediation. In 2001, a crew of German scientists confirmed that the Chernobyl tests were successful, and that hemp had drawn out much of the lead, cadmium, and nickel from the soil.

In 2011, Italian scientists decided to test the theory again. In the town of Puglia, Italy, much of the soil was contaminated by a local steel plant. Again, the researchers picked hemp as their tool of choice for phytoremediation. The results of the Puglia test are still pending.

Recently, Elizabeth Pilon-Smits, a Colorado State University professor has begun doing more research into the potential for hemp to purify soil. She has been interested in the theory of phytoremediation for over a decade, but until recently has been unable to secure funding for her research. Although hemp and marijuana are not prohibited locally by the state of Colorado, and hemp research was actually encouraged in a 2014 bill, funding organizations were unenthusiastic to provide the researcher with the materials she required to perform her studies because of the threat of losing Federal support.

As moves toward legalization progress, Pilon-Smits has been able to begin her research. The results are still pending, but hemp seems to be proving to be a miracle plant with strong phytoremedial properties. The initial tests to see if hemp can draw selenium out of soil have been successful. Selenium is a metal that is a necessary nutrient for biological functioning in mammals, but large quantities can be fatal. Hemp has shown a resilience to high doses of selenium, and was able to draw much of the metal out of the soil.

Practical Implications

If hemp does prove to be the miracle plant that can heal soil, that’s good news for farmers and communities across the world.

There are large swaths of land that have been sanctioned as landfills and dumps. In these areas, heavy metals and other toxic materials seep into the soil, making it impossible to plant crops for human or animal consumption. We still do not fully understand the effects that this pollution has on the surrounding areas, their food sources and water reservoirs, and the long-term consequences for the people who live in the vicinity.

Additionally, there have been a number of instances where areas have been besieged by radioactive contamination and other hazardous materials. Hemp may be the secret to purifying the soil from some of the disastrous effects of pollution, and could renew the environmental and economic potentials of these communities.

Lingering Questions

For the time being, researchers are still trying to pin down the answers to a number of important questions. First and foremost is where do the contaminants go? Do they collect in the hemp leaves and seeds? If so, the hemp would be unfit for human and animal consumption, and couldn’t be used as a source of CBD. If the contaminants collect in the stalks, that might restrict the viability of the hemp for use in textiles and construction.

Additionally, the researchers are working to understand if the selenium that is extracted from the soil would be able to be reused in nutritional supplements. This may provide another purpose for the hemp that is used for phytoremediation, and can provide an added economic incentive for farmers to get in on the ground floor of this industry.

Next Steps

Hemp has so much potential for the future. Besides for all the other amazing qualities of this beloved plant, hemp may be on the forefront of the environmental renewal movement. This can provide hemp farmers and manufacturers with a whole slew of new uses for their product.

Whatever space in the hemp world you occupy, Sonder Accounting is here to provide you with high quality, industry-specific accounting. We have years of experience helping hemp-related businesses, from CBD brands to building materials to services, use their financial data to make stronger decisions.

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About the Authors

Sonder Accounting was founded in 2016 by Kara Janowsky to serve the financial maagement needs of the nascent cannabis industry. Our small and specialized team has partnered with over 250 businesses in similar industries to build functional financials that drive business growth:

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