Tiago Campbell is currently a master’s degree candidate for environmental science at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa. For his final thesis, Campbell is looking into cleaning up the area around where he lives, Johannesburg. In South Africa, there are an estimated 380 abandoned gold mines. Each one ran for 130 years, but didn’t always practice safe procedures for humans or the environment. Because of poor practices, the soil contains high levels of arsenic, cadmium, cobalt, copper, zinc, and uranium.
These toxins are dangerous for human and animal consumption. However, Campbell theorizes that if he plants hemp in these contaminated areas, then the hemp will be able to extract it and make the area safe for consumable farming.
Campbell isn’t the first to conduct this type of research. In 2002, a group of Italian researchers from the University of Wuppertal and the Faserinstitut of Bremen, Germany, conducted similar research on hemp plants. Growing hemp in heavy, metal filled soil showed the plant grew without much change to its general structure or its chemical structure. The soil after harvesting saw much lower rates of heavy metal. Lab results found the contaminants in the soil had become almost completely removed.
“Hemp allows a sort of dilution of metals in the biomass and this results in material that, in principle, presents very limited or even no health risks,” Vito Gallo said. He is Professor of Chemistry at the Polytechnic of Bari as well as the coordinator of BIO SP.HE.RE., a hemp-specific research initiative.
By removing metals from the soil, it cleans up the area for crops that can be for consumption. And as for the hemp grown in the contaminated soil, there is use for it as well. It can be used in secondary products. These products include textiles, insulation, bioplastics, and construction materials.
With how versatile hemp is, even in contaminated soil, it could boost the future of the hemp industry even further. “The use of hemp… would not only lead to the creation of a new system of land use linked to environmental protection, but also to the creation of jobs and sustainable resources for the community,” said biologist Marcello Colao with the Italian non-profit Association of Apulian Environmental Biologists (ABAP).
There is a huge future ahead for the hemp industry, as well as job creation and environmental science. Because of this, the research Campbell is doing will remain closely monitored and even potentially replicated. This could help create better soil across the world, all thanks to the versatile hemp plant.
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