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The Practical Chemist

Pesticide Analysis in Cannabis and Related Products: Part 3

By Julie Kowalski
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As mentioned in Part 1, pesticides residue analysis is very challenging especially considering the complexity of cannabis and the variety of flower, concentrates and infused products. In addition, pesticides are tested at low levels typically at parts-per-billion (ppb). For example, the food safety industry often uses 10 ppb as a benchmark limit of quantification. To put that in perspective, current pesticides limits in cannabis range from 10 ppb default (Massachusetts Regulatory Limit) to a more typical range of 100 ppb to 2 ppm in other states. Current testing is also complicated by evolving regulations.

Despite these challenges, adaptation of methods used by the food safety industry have proved successful for testing pesticides in cannabis. These methods typically rely on mass spectrometric detection paired with sample preparation methods to render the sample clean enough to yield quality data.

Pesticide Analysis Methods: Sample preparation and Analytical Technique Strategy

Generally, methods can be divided into two parts; sample preparation and analytical testing where both are critical to the success of pesticide residue testing and are inextricably linked. Reliance on mass spectrometric techniques like tandem mass spectrometry and high resolution accurate mass (HRAM) mass spectrometry is attributed to the substantial sensitivity and selectivity provided. The sensitivity and selectivity achievable by the detector largely dictates the sample preparation that will be required. The more sensitive and selective the detector, the less rigorous and resource intensive sample preparation can be.

Analytical technique: Gas and Liquid Chromatography Tandem Mass Spectrometry 

The workhorse approach for pesticide residue analysis involves using gas chromatography and liquid chromatography tandem mass spectrometry (MS/MS) in the ion transition mode. This ion transition mode, often referred to as multiple reaction monitoring (MRM) or selected reaction monitoring (SRM), adds the selectivity and sensitivity needed for trace level analysis. Essentially, a pesticide precursor ion is fragmented into product ions. The detector monitors the signal for a specified product ion known to have originated from the pesticide precursor ion. This allows the signal to be corrected, associated with the analyte and not with other matrix components in the sample. In addition, because only ions meeting the precursor/product ion requirements are passed to the detector with little noise, there is a benefit to the observed signal to noise ratio allowing better sensitivity than in other modes. Even though ion transitions are specific, there is the possibility a matrix interference that also demonstrates that same ion transition could result in a false positive. Multiple ion transitions for each analyte are monitored to determine an ion ratio. The ion ratio should remain consistent for a specific analyte and is used to add confidence to analyte identification.

The best choice for pesticide analysis between gas chromatography (GC) and liquid chromatography (LC) is often questioned. To perform comprehensive pesticide screening similar to the way the food safety market approaches this challenge requires both techniques. It is not uncommon for screening methods to test for several hundred pesticides that vary in physiochemical properties. It may be possible that with a smaller list of analytes, only one technique will be needed but often in order to reach the low limits for pesticide residues both GC and LC are required.

Modified QuEChERS extraction using 1.5 grams of cannabis flower. Courtesy of Julie Kowalski (Restek Corporation), Jeff Dahl (Shimadzu Scientific Instruments) and Derek Laine (Trace Analytics).
Modified QuEChERS extraction using 1.5 grams of cannabis flower. Courtesy of Julie Kowalski (Restek Corporation), Jeff Dahl (Shimadzu Scientific Instruments) and Derek Laine (Trace Analytics).

Analytical technique: Sample Preparation

Less extensive sample preparation is possible when combined with sensitive and selective detectors like MS/MS. One popular method is the QuEChERS approach. QuEChERS stands for Quick, Easy, Cheap, Effective, Rugged and Safe. It consists of a solvent extraction/salting out step followed by a cleanup using dispersive solid phase extraction. Originally designed for fruit and vegetable pesticide testing, QuEChERS has been modified and used for many other commodity types including cannabis. Although QuEChERS is a viable method, sometimes more cleanup is needed and this can be done with cartridge solid phase extraction. This cleanup functions differently and is more labor intensive, but results in a cleaner extract. A cleaner extract helps to secure quality data and is sometimes needed for difficult analyses.