In recent times, the cannabis industry has witnessed significant expansion, with a growing number of regions legalizing its medical and recreational consumption. With this rapid growth, the safety of cannabis products and consumers becomes a top priority. Central to ensuring this safety is the intricate process of cannabis pesticide testing.
Every industry that caters to human consumption has standards to maintain. When it comes to cannabis, the presence of pesticides can pose significant health risks. Given that many consumers utilize cannabis for its therapeutic benefits, it’s essential that what they consume is devoid of harmful chemicals. That’s where cannabis pesticide testing steps in.
One might ask, why the big fuss about pesticides in cannabis? Simply put, inhalation of these chemicals is different than ingestion as toxins are often absorbed more easily and can initially bypass the organs meant to filter toxins from the body. Additionally when combusted, certain pesticides transform into highly toxic compounds – many we are still learning about. These toxins, when inhaled, can lead to respiratory problems, immune system issues, and even neurological disorders. Effects can be more dramatic on adolescents, the elderly or those with existing medical conditions. Cannabis pesticide testing ensures these harmful substances don’t reach consumers.
Cannabis plants are known for their ability to absorb contaminants from the environment. While this trait is useful for phyto-remediation, it presents challenges when the plant is meant for consumption. Pesticides, utilized to improve crop yields, can remain on the plant, introducing potential health risks upon ingestion, inhalation, or topical application.
For numerous users turning to cannabis for medicinal purposes, the presence of pesticides could diminish its therapeutic benefits, leading to undesirable effects. This makes cannabis pesticide testing not merely a regulatory procedure but an essential aspect of consumer safety.
Pesticide testing is also a tool cultivators can use to verify inputs such as soil, water, grow medium, nutrients are free from contamination This helps to prevent costly downstream contamination of entire harvests.
The regulations surrounding pesticide residues in cannabis vary widely across jurisdictions. For instance:
This variability underlines the need for an adaptable, sophisticated approach to cannabis pesticide testing.
Several methods are used today in detecting and analyzing pesticide residues in cannabis. We often generalize compounds as pesticides due to their practical use but in fact, this general category consists of compounds with a very wide range of chemical profiles. As such, it can be difficult to develop an analytical assay that works well for each compound in these long target lists. A costly, yet absolutely necessary analytical technique, is to use internal standards and surrogate compounds to control for analytical variability (quick read on internal standards and surrogates for our fellow nerds). These compounds are specially synthesized to behave exactly like the target analyte. So, when there is a fluctuation in the surrogate/internal standard paired to the target analyte we know to follow internal procedures to reanalyze and verify results. Without properly paired surrogates and internal standards a result may be artificially inflated due to an interference leading to a false positive. Many published methods in use today use <10 or even only 4 to save money in these large assays, which beg the question of accuracy and repeatability.
Gas Chromatography (GC-MS/MS): Analyzes compounds that can brought into a gaseous state for chromatographic separation and detection by mass spec. This is an old but, tried and true method of analysis. The limiting factor is long run times which can lead to a backlog in sample processing and analysis. This is particularly challenging in high-throughput environments or when rapid results are required.
Additionally, certain compounds that are thermally unstable or have high molecular weights may not be suitable for GC-MS/MS, limiting its
applicability in some types of chemical analysis. Despite these limitations, GC-MS/MS remains a highly accurate and reliable tool for
the qualitative and quantitative analysis of volatile and semi-volatile compounds.
High-Performance Liquid Chromatography with UV/PDA (HPLC-UV): Tests compounds in their liquid state and uses a UV detector. This technology is in use in some environmental applications where the pesticide concentrations are expected to be high. The detector, however, does not have the sensitivity to look at low trace analysis levels expected in cannabis. UV/PDA detectors are not a viable option in cannabis labs.
HPLC coupled with Tandem Mass Spectrometry (MS/MS): Often abbreviated LC-MS/MS, is the most robust and accurate method for analysis of pesticides in cannabis. Simply put, it works by identifying compounds based on their molecular weight, fragments them and then verifies detection by looking at the fragments unique to each compound. Within this broad technology category also exists a technology used at Nova Analytic Labs called High Resolution Mass Spectrometry; abbreviated HR-MS or QTOF-MS (fellow nerds learn more here). This even more advanced system detects extra small differences in molecular weights which is helpful in pesticide analysis due to the existence of interferents nearly identical molecular weights as the target analyte. In short, what does this mean? We are less likely to report false positives due to similar yet ultimately different compounds present in a sample. Given the complexity of cannabis samples, Nova Analytic Labs, a leader in this field, employs state-of-the-art SCIEX systems with an extremely robust internal standard and surrogate scheme to ensure accurate and precise identification of the 66 target compounds analyzed. These instruments coupled with proper sample handling, preparation and data review procedures enhance accuracy and efficiency, ensuring the residue testing meets strict regulations, especially those specific to Maine.
An important element often overlooked when assessing a laboratory’s quality and methodologies is the team and procedures that go into the analysis. It is easy to fixate on the fancy and expensive instruments but, more often than not, the expertise of the scientists running the assays and procedures in place to verify quality and data output is more important.
Training and Qualification: The laboratory professionals need to be experts in understanding the handling of cannabis samples, preparing those samples for analysis, operating lab instruments and reviewing the data that comes off those instruments. An extensive training protocol accompanied by observed competency assessments must be completed at regular intervals. At Nova, we prescribe by a method of complete immersion. This is where a Scientist is trained on all aspects of an analysis, start to finish, and not just one segment such as sample extracts while having no understanding of the data that is output at the other end. This enables our Scientists to identify any potential issues with a clarity on how it ultimately affects the result and our clients.
Data Analysis: Analytical data requires a trained eye to interpret and report results. Lab instruments do not simply print “pass” or “fail”. Delicate review and analysis of chromatography, quality control performance, equipment calibrations and maintenance procedures are required to successfully report any results. In some cases, interpretation may not be feasible and repeat analysis may be required. For such sensitive analysis such as pesticides, Nova employs a two step review process. Step 1 is considered an initial data review and is performed by the lead pesticide scientist. Step 2, or certification, is completed by the laboratory manager and requires agreement between the two individuals before data can be released to our clients.
Preventative Maintenance: Instruments are delicate. Despite their often >$500k price tag. They do not always behave as expected and monitoring programs are needed to identify instrument performance degradation before affecting client samples. Regular cleaning, replacement of consumable parts and service contacts with the instrument OEM vendor are costly yet a necessary strategy employed by the highest quality laboratories.
With the multitude of pesticides in circulation and the absence of a global standard, cannabis pesticide testing is intricate. Pesticides deemed safe for ingestion in food might be harmful when inhaled. Furthermore, the ‘Action Levels’, or the limits at which pesticides are considered harmful, can differ across regions, making the task even more intricate.
To date, largely due to the federal illegality of cannabis, no meaningful clinical studies have been performed to determine ‘safe’ levels of pesticides in cannabis. As research progresses we hope to have real scientifically backed data sources to inform regulators on what pesticides should be monitored and at what levels might be harmful to the human body. Until then, regulations will likely continue to have an ‘almost zero’ tolerance policy for pesticides and ask laboratories to test as low as possible and pass when they are not detected.
With the cannabis industry evolving, there is an urgent need for standardized cannabis pesticide testing procedures. Progress is being made with the development of consistent guidelines and more advanced testing equipment. Organizations are investing in research to pinpoint potentially harmful pesticide residues specific to cannabis, ensuring testing remains pertinent and current.
Ensuring the purity of cannabis products is a collective responsibility. At Nova Analytic Labs, this duty is taken to heart. By employing advanced techniques, they aim to provide clarity around cannabis pesticide testing, offering precision and peace of mind. As we navigate this dynamic cannabis environment, it’s reassuring to recognize institutions like Nova Analytic Labs that place a premium on rigorous testing, guaranteeing every consumption method is as safe as it’s meant to be.