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The Nerd Perspective

Pesticide Detection in Cannabis: Lab Challenges and Why Less Isn’t Always More

By Amanda Rigdon
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Almost as soon as cannabis became recreationally legal, the public started to ask questions about the safety of products being offered by dispensaries – especially in terms of pesticide contamination. As we can see from the multiple recalls of product there is a big problem with pesticides in cannabis that could pose a danger to consumers. While The Nerd Perspective is grounded firmly in science and fact, the purpose of this column is to share my insights into the cannabis industry based on my years of experience with multiple regulated industries with the goal of helping the cannabis industry mature using lessons learned from other established markets. In this article, we’ll take a look at some unique challenges facing cannabis testing labs, what they’re doing to respond to the challenges, and how that can affect the cannabis industry as a whole.

Photo: Michelle Tribe, Flickr
Photo: Michelle Tribe, Flickr

The Big Challenge

Over the past several years, laboratories have quickly ‘grown up’ in terms of technology and expertise, improving their methods for pesticide detection to improve data quality and lower detection limits, which ultimately ensures a safer product by improving identification of contaminated product. But even though cannabis laboratories are maturing, they’re maturing in an environment far different than labs from regulated industry, like food laboratories. Food safety testing laboratories have been governmentally regulated and funded from almost the very beginning, allowing them some financial breathing room to set up their operation, and ensuring they won’t be penalized for failing samples. In contrast, testing fees for cannabis labs are paid for by growers and producers – many of whom are just starting their own business and short of cash. This creates fierce competition between cannabis laboratories in terms of testing cost and turnaround time. One similarity that the cannabis industry shares with the food industry is consumer and regulatory demand for safe product. This demand requires laboratories to invest in instrumentation and personnel to ensure generation of quality data. In short, the two major demands placed on cannabis laboratories are low cost and scientific excellence. As a chemist with years of experience, scientific excellence isn’t cheap, thus cannabis laboratories are stuck between a rock and a hard place and are feeling the squeeze.

Responding to the Challenge

One way for high-quality laboratories to win business is to tout their investment in technology and the sophistication of their methods; they’re selling their science, a practice I stand behind completely. However, due to the fierce competition between labs, some laboratories have oversold their science by using terms like ‘lethal’ or ‘toxic’ juxtaposed with vague statements regarding the discovery of pesticides in cannabis using the highly technical methods that they offer. This juxtaposition can then be reinforced by overstating the importance of ultra-low detection levels outside of any regulatory context. For example, a claim stating that detecting pesticides at the parts per trillion level (ppt) will better ensure consumer safety than methods run by other labs that only detect pesticides at concentrations at parts per billion (ppb) concentrations is a potentially dangerous claim in that it could cause future problems for the cannabis industry as a whole. In short, while accurately identifying contaminated samples versus clean samples is indeed a good thing, sometimes less isn’t more, bringing us to the second half of the title of this article.

Less isn’t always more…

Spiral Galaxy Milky Way
The Milky Way

In my last article, I illustrated the concept of the trace concentrations laboratories detect, finishing up with putting the concept of ppb into perspective. I wasn’t even going to try to illustrate parts per trillion. Parts per trillion is one thousand times less concentrated than parts per billion. To put ppt into perspective, we can’t work with water like I did in my previous article; we have to channel Neil deGrasse Tyson.

The Milky Way galaxy contains about 100 billion stars, and our sun is one of them. Our lonely sun, in the vastness of our galaxy, where light itself takes 100,000 years to traverse, represents a concentration of 10 ppt. On the surface, detecting galactically-low levels of contaminants sounds wonderful. Pesticides are indeed lethal chemicals, and their byproducts are often lethal or carcinogenic as well. From the consumer perspective, we want everything we put in our bodies free of harmful chemicals. Looking at consumer products from The Nerd Perspective, however, the previous sentence changes quite a bit. To be clear, nobody – nerds included – wants food or medicine that will poison them. But let’s explore the gap between ‘poison’ and ‘reality’, and why that gap matters.

FDAIn reality, according to a study conducted by the FDA in 2011, roughly 37.5% of the food we consume every day – including meat, fish, and grains – is contaminated with pesticides. Is that a good thing? No, of course it isn’t. It’s not ideal to put anything into our bodies that has been contaminated with the byproducts of human habitation. However, the FDA, EPA, and other governmental agencies have worked for decades on toxicological, ecological, and environmental studies devoted to determining what levels of these toxic chemicals actually have the potential to cause harm to humans. Rather than discuss whether or not any level is acceptable, let’s take it on principle that we won’t drop over dead from a lethal dose of pesticides after eating a salad and instead take a look at the levels the FDA deem ‘acceptable’ for food products. In their 2011 study, the FDA states that “Tolerance levels generally range from 0.1 to 50 parts per million (ppm). Residues present at 0.01 ppm and above are usually measurable; however, for individual pesticides, this limit may range from 0.005 to 1 ppm.” Putting those terms into parts per trillion means that most tolerable levels range from 100,000 to 50,000,000 ppt and the lower limit of ‘usually measurable’ is 10,000 ppt. For the food we eat and feed to our children, levels in parts per trillion are not even discussed because they’re not relevant.

green apple with slice isolated on the white background.

A specific example of this is arsenic. Everyone knows arsenic is very toxic. However, trace levels of arsenic naturally occur in the environment, and until 2004, arsenic was widely used to protect pressure-treated wood from termite damage. Because of the use of arsenic on wood and other arsenic containing pesticides, much of our soil and water now contains some arsenic, which ends up in apples and other produce. These apples get turned into juice, which is freely given to toddlers everywhere. Why, then, has there not an infant mortality catastrophe? Because even though the arsenic was there (and still is), it wasn’t present at levels that were harmful. In 2013, the FDA published draft guidance stating that the permissible level of arsenic in apple juice was 10 parts per billion (ppb) – 10,000 parts per trillion. None of us would think twice about offering apple juice to our child, and we don’t have to…because the dose makes the poison.

How Does This Relate to the Cannabis Industry?

The concept of permissible exposure levels (a.k.a. maximum residue limits) is an important concept that’s understood by laboratories, but is not always considered by the public and the regulators tasked with ensuring cannabis consumer safety. As scientists, it is our job not to misrepresent the impact of our methods or the danger of cannabis contaminants. We cannot understate the danger of these toxins, nor should we overstate their danger. In overstating the danger of these toxins, we indirectly pressure regulators to establish ridiculously low limits for contaminants. Lower limits always require the use of newer testing technologies, higher levels of technical expertise, and more complicated methods. All of this translates to increased testing costs – costs that are then passed on to growers, producers, and consumers. I don’t envy the regulators in the cannabis industry. Like the labs in the cannabis industry, they’re also stuck between a rock and a hard place: stuck between consumers demanding a safe product and producers demanding low-cost testing. As scientists, let’s help them out by focusing our discussion on the real consumer safety issues that are present in this market.

*average of domestic food (39.5% contaminated) and imported food (35.5% contaminated)

Steep Hill, ACCL Find Pesticides in Over 50% of Cannabis Samples

By Aaron G. Biros
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On Election Day, voters in California passed Proposition 64, establishing a recreational cannabis market and regulatory environment. While the state won’t issue the first licenses under the new regulatory scheme until 2018, the medical cannabis industry is already well established.

Steep Hill Labs, Inc., based in Berkeley, California, found in October that 84.3% of samples submitted tested positive for pesticide residue, according to a press release. The announcement came before Election Day, but is particularly eye opening given the massive new market created overnight by Prop 64.rsz_steephill_lab_images_25_of_415_copy

Particularly concerning is their detection of Myclobutanil, which was found in more than 65% of samples submitted to the lab. According to the press release, when Myclobutanil is heated (i.e. smoked or vaporized), it is converted to Hydrogen Cyanide, which is extraordinarily toxic to humans and can be fatal in higher doses.

Reggie Gaudino, Ph.D., vice president of scientific operations and director of genetics at Steep Hill Laboratories. (photo credit: Preston Gannaway)
Reggie Gaudino, Ph.D. (photo credit: Preston Gannaway)

According to Reggie Gaudino, Ph.D., vice president of science, genetics and intellectual property at Steep Hill, their more recent study shows they detected pesticides in roughly 70% of the samples they received and 50% of those contained Myclobutanil. Gaudino says that up to a third of those samples would have failed under Oregon’s regulatory standards.

If a lab test were failed, it would contain pesticides at or higher than the required action level. Oregon’s action level, or the measured amount of pesticides in a product that the OHA deems potentially dangerous, for Myclobutanil is 0.2 parts-per-million (PPM). Steep Hill’s instrumentation has a method detection limit down to the parts-per-trillion (PPT) level, which is a more precise and smaller amount than Oregon’s action level.

“Those in the cannabis community who feel that all cannabis is safe are not correct given this data – smoking a joint of pesticide-contaminated cannabis could potentially expose the body to lethal chemicals,” says Jmichaele Keller, president and chief executive officer of Steep Hill. “As a community, we need to address this issue immediately and not wait until 2018.”

Potentially harmful pesticides, and specifically Myclobutanil, have been detected in Colorado and Washington’s recreational markets on a number of occasions, proving this is a widespread issue. Steep Hill’s release suggests that California regulators take a look at Oregon’s pesticide regulations for guidance when developing the regulatory framework.

What’s even more troubling is that not all laboratories have or had the capability of detecting pesticides at sufficiently low levels and because of this, other labs had significantly lower rates of pesticide detection, suggesting possible inconsistencies in testing methods, instrumentation, sample preparation or other variations. During a 30-day period in late September and early October, Steep Hill found, using publicly available data, or data from contracted testing, that other labs were only reporting between 3% and 21% pesticide detection.

Examination of cannabis prior to testing- credit Steep Hill Labs, Inc.
Examination of cannabis prior to testing- credit Steep Hill Labs, Inc.

It is important to note that those samples were not identical and there could be a great degree in variation on the quality of samples sent to different laboratories, so it is not an entirely accurate comparison. Steep Hill does however detect pesticides down to the parts-per-trillion level, whereas many common methods for detecting pesticides look at the parts-per-billion level.

Reggie Gaudino says the Association of Commercial Cannabis Laboratories (ACCL) is using this data to work with Steep Hill and a number of other labs to address these issues. “As a member of the ACCL, and after discussion with ACCL, we have agreed that all future discussion of this issue should not include laboratory names, as this is about educating the industry in general, and making sure all members of the ACCL are developing the best possible methods for detecting pesticides,” says Gaudino. “The ACCL has responded to this data, by inquiring on a larger, industry-wide basis, which represents a better picture of the issue, rather than only in California’s still-technically unregulated market.” The important message is this is a major issue that needs addressing urgently. “As such, the troubling issue remains, across the larger ACCL membership, there is still detection of pesticides in at least 50% of the cannabis being tested.”

ACCL logoAccording to Jeffrey Raber, Ph.D., president of the ACCL, the industry is experiencing a pesticide problem, but it is very difficult to quantify. “It is fair to say that around 50% of the cannabis being tested contains pesticides, but we really don’t know that exact number until a much more comprehensive statistical analysis is performed,” says Raber. “We agree this is a big problem and that it needs to be addressed, but we are not sure just how big of a problem it really is.” With so much variation in labs in a state where not everyone is required to test products, it is very difficult to pin down how consistent lab results are and how contaminated the cannabis really is. “If all of the labs had the same methodology, samples and shared statistical analyses for a real study then we can look at it closely but it seems we are a ways off from that. I can say confidently however that this is a pretty significant problem that needs addressing.”

Still, Steep Hill detecting pesticides in a majority of their samples and some labs finding as little as 3% should raise some eyebrows. “Unfortunately, our recent study discovered that 84.3% of the samples assessed by our triple quadrupole mass spectrometer contained pesticides,” says Keller. “As of today, this tainted product could be sold in most dispensaries throughout the state of California without any way of informing the patients about the risks of pesticide exposure.”

These findings could mean potentially enormous health risks for medical and recreational cannabis consumers alike, unless regulators, labs and growers take quick action to address the problem.

Oregon Issues Health Alert for Contaminated Cannabis

By Aaron G. Biros
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According to Jonathan Modie, spokesman for the Oregon Health Authority (OHA), on Friday, October 21st, the OHA issued a ‘health alert’ regarding cannabis products sold from a McMinnville dispensary that were possibly tainted with extremely high levels of Spinosad, an insecticide commonly used to combat mites and other pests. “My understanding is that two medical patients purchased the cannabis products whom we had contact info for, but most of the purchasers were recreational customers,” says Modie. “Because it is not required to get contact info for recreational customers, we issued the health alert to get the word out as quickly as possible because we didn’t know who bought the product.” The OHA is urging consumers who purchased cannabis from New Leaf CannaCenter in McMinnville to check the labels and see if they purchased potentially dangerous cannabis, and to either return the cannabis to the dispensary or dispose of it appropriately.

oha_logo_lrgThe action level, the measured amount of pesticides in a product that the OHA deems potentially dangerous, for Spinosad is 0.2 parts-per-million (PPM). The two batches in question are the strains Dr. Jack (batch number G6J0051-02) and Marion Berry (batch number G6J0051-01), which were tested to contain approximately 42 PPM and 22 PPM respectively, much higher than the OHA’s action level.

While this is the first health alert issued in Oregon in connection with potentially contaminated cannabis, Modie says he expects there will be more health alerts in the future. “Unfortunately the product was inappropriately transferred from the grower to the dispensary and from the dispensary to customers, so we are working to get the word out to dispensaries, growers and processors about the testing rules to prevent this from happening in the future,” says Modie. “We want to make it clear that any grower, processor or dispensary that does not follow the testing requirements or fail to label, store or retain batches that fail a test will be subject to enforcement actions such as fines, penalties, suspension or revocation of their license.” The OHA has a list of pesticide analytes and their action levels on their website.

“We are advising recreational and medical users alike to read the product labels closely; the labels must have the license or registrant number, the packaging or distributor license number, the name of the strain and the universal symbol,” says Modie. “We are also suggesting consumers request a copy of pesticide test results from the dispensary.” It is unclear at this time if all of the cannabis products in question have been properly disposed of, but OHA was informed that New Leaf has pulled all products in question off of the shelf.