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Analytical Instruments You Need to Start a Cannabis Testing Laboratory

By Bob Clifford
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The cannabis industry is growing exponentially, and the use of cannabis for medical purposes is being adopted across the nation. With this boom in cannabis consumers, there has been an increasing need for knowledge about the product.

The role of testing labs has become crucial to the process, which makes owning and operating a lab more lucrative. Scientists testing for potency, heavy metals, pesticides, residual solvents, moisture, terpene profile, microbial and fungal growth, and mycotoxins/aflatoxins are able to make meaningful contributions to the medical industry by making sure products are safe, while simultaneously generating profits and a return on investment.

Here are the key testing instruments you need to conduct these critical analyses. Note that cannabis analytical testing requirements may vary by state, so be sure to check the regulations applicable to the location of your laboratory.

Potency Testing

High-performance liquid chromatograph (HPLC) designed for quantitative determination of cannabinoid content.

The most important component of cannabis testing is the analysis of cannabinoid profiles, also known as potency. Cannabis plants naturally produce cannabinoids that determine the overall effect and strength of the cultivar, which is also referred to as the strain. There are many different cannabinoids that all have distinct medicinal effects. However, most states only require testing and reporting for the dry weight percentages of delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (Δ9-THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). It should be noted that delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (Δ9-THCA) can be converted to THC through oxidation with heat or light.

For potency testing, traditional high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) is recommended and has become the gold standard for analyzing cannabinoid profiles. Look for a turnkey HPLC analyzer that delivers a comprehensive package that integrates instrument hardware, software, consumables and proven HPLC methods.

Heavy Metal Testing

ICP-MS instrument for detecting heavy metals in cannabis.

Different types of metals can be found in soils and fertilizers, and as cannabis plants grow, they tend to draw in these metals from the soil. Heavy metals are a group of metals considered to be toxic, and the most common include lead, cadmium, arsenic and mercury. Most labs are required to test and confirm that samples are under the allowable toxic concentration limits for these four hazardous metals.

Heavy metal testing is performed by inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (ICP-MS). ICP-MS uses the different masses of each element to determine which elements are present within a sample and at what concentrations. Make sure to include accompanying software that provides assistant functions to simplify analysis by developing analytical methods and automatically diagnosing spectral interference. This will provide easy operation and analytical results with exceptionally high reliability.

To reduce running costs, look for a supporting hardware system that reduces the consumption of argon gas and electricity. For example, use a plasma ignition sequence that is optimized for lower-purity argon gas (i.e., 99.9% argon as opposed to more expensive 99.9999%).

Pesticide Testing

The detection of pesticides in cannabis can be a challenge. There are many pesticides that are used in commercial cannabis grow operations to kill the pests that thrive on the plants and in greenhouses. These chemicals are toxic to humans, so confirming their absence from cannabis products is crucial. The number of pesticides that must be tested for varies from state to state, with Colorado requiring only 13 pesticides, whereas Oregon and California require 59 and 66 respectively. Canada has taken it a step further and must test for 96 pesticides, while AOAC International is developing methods for testing for 104 pesticides. The list of pesticides will continue to evolve as the industry evolves.

Testing for pesticides is one of the more problematic analyses, possibly resulting in the need for two different instruments depending on the state’s requirements. For a majority of pesticides, liquid chromatography mass spectrometry (LCMS) is acceptable and operates much like HPLC but utilizes a different detector and sample preparation.

With excellent sensitivity and ultra-low detection limits, LC-MS/MS is an ideal technique for the analysis of pesticides.

Pesticides that do not ionize well in an LCMS source require the use of a gas chromatography mass spectrometry (GCMS) instrument. The principles of HPLC still apply – you inject a sample, separate it on a column and detect with a detector. However, in this case, a gas (typically helium) is used to carry the sample.

Look for a LC-MS/MS system or HPLC system with a triple quadrupole mass spectrometer that provides ultra-low detection limits, high sensitivity and efficient throughput. Advanced systems can analyze more than 200 pesticides in 12 minutes.

For GCMS analysis, consider an instrument that utilizes a triple quadrupole mass spectrometer to help maximize the capabilities of your laboratory. Select an instrument that is designed with enhanced functionality, analysis software, databases and a sample introduction system. Also include a headspace autosampler, which can also be used for terpene profiles and residual solvent testing.

Residual Solvent Testing

Residual solvents are chemicals left over from the process of extracting cannabinoids and terpenes from the cannabis plant. Common solvents for such extractions include ethanol, butane, propane and hexane. These solvents are evaporated to prepare high-concentration oils and waxes. However, it is sometimes necessary to use large quantities of solvent in order to increase extraction efficiency and to achieve higher levels of purity. Since these solvents are not safe for human consumption, most states require labs to verify that all traces of the substances have been removed.

Testing for residual solvents requires gas chromatography (GC). For this process, a small amount of extract is put into a vial and heated to mimic the natural evaporation process. The amount of solvent that is evaporated from the sample and into the air is referred to as the “headspace.” The headspace is then extracted with a syringe and placed in the injection port of the GC. This technique is called full-evaporated technique (FET) and utilizes the headspace autosampler for the GC.

Look for a GCMS instrument with a headspace autosampler, which can also be used for pesticide and terpene analysis.

Terpene Profile Testing

Terpenes are produced in the trichomes of the cannabis leaves, where THC is created, and are common constituents of the plant’s distinctive flavor and aroma. Terpenes also act as essential medicinal hydrocarbon building blocks, influencing the overall homeopathic and therapeutic effect of the product. The characterization of terpenes and their synergistic effect with cannabinoids are key for identifying the correct cannabis treatment plan for patients with pain, anxiety, epilepsy, depression, cancer and other illnesses. This test is not required by most states, but it is recommended.

The instrumentation that is used for analyzing terpene profiles is a GCMS with headspace autosampler with an appropriate spectral library. Since residual solvent testing is an analysis required by most states, all of the instrumentation required for terpene profiling will already be in your lab.

As with residual solvent testing, look for a GCMS instrument with a headspace autosampler (see above). 

Microbe, Fungus and Mycotoxin Testing

Most states mandate that cannabis testing labs analyze samples for any fungal or microbial growth resulting from production or handling, as well as for mycotoxins, which are toxins produced by fungi. With the potential to become lethal, continuous exposure to mycotoxins can lead to a buildup of progressively worse allergic reactions.

LCMS should be used to qualify and identify strains of mycotoxins. However, determining the amount of microorganisms present is another challenge. That testing can be done using enzyme linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA), quantitative polymerase chain reaction (qPCR) or matrix-assisted laser desorption/ionization time-of-flight mass spectrometry (MALDI-TOF MS), with each having their advantages and disadvantages.

For mycotoxin analysis, select a high-sensitivity LC-MS/MS instrument. In addition to standard LC, using an MS/MS selective detector enables labs to obtain limits of detection up to 1000 times greater than conventional LC-UV instruments.

For qPCR and its associated needs, look for a real-time PCR amplification system that combines thermal cyclers with optical reaction modules for singleplex and multiplex detection of fluorophores. These real-time PCR detection systems range from economical two-target detection to sophisticated five-target or more detection systems. The real-time detection platform should offer reliable gradient-enabled thermal cyclers for rapid assay optimization. Accompanying software built to work with the system simplifies plate setup, data collection, data analysis and data visualization of real-time PCR results.

Moisture Content and Water Activity Testing

Moisture content testing is required in some states. Moisture can be extremely detrimental to the quality of stored cannabis products. Dried cannabis typically has a moisture content of 5% to 12%. A moisture content above 12% in dried cannabis is prone to fungal growth (mold). As medical users may be immune deficient and vulnerable to the effects of mold, constant monitoring of moisture is needed. Below a 5% moisture content, the cannabis will turn to a dust-like texture.

The best way to analyze the moisture content of any product is using the thermogravimetric method with a moisture balance instrument. This process involves placing the sample of cannabis into the sample chamber and taking an initial reading. Then the moisture balance instrument heats up until all the moisture has been evaporated out of the sample. A final reading is then taken to determine the percent weight of moisture that was contained in the original sample.

A moisture balance can provide accurate determination of moisture content in cannabis.

Look for a moisture balance that offers intuitive operation and quick, accurate determination of moisture content. The pan should be spacious enough to allow large samples to be spread thinly. The halogen heater and reflector plate should combine to enable precise, uniform heating. Advanced features can include preset, modifiable measurement modes like automated ending, timed ending, rapid drying, slow drying and step drying.

Another method for preventing mold is monitoring water activity (aW). Very simply, moisture content is the total amount of water available, while water activity is the “free water” that could produce mold. Water activityranges from 0 to 1. Pure water would have an aW of 1.0. ASTM methods D8196-18 and D8297-18 are methods for monitoring water activity in dry cannabis flower. The aW range recommended for storage is 0.55 to 0.65. Some states recommend moisture content to be monitored, other states monitor water activity, and some states such as California recommend monitoring both.

Final Thoughts

As you can see, cannabis growers benefit tremendously from cannabis testing. Whether meeting state requirements or certifying a product, laboratory testing reduces growers’ risk and ensures delivery of a quality product. As medicinal and recreational cannabis markets continue to grow, analytical testing will ensure that consumers are receiving accurately

labeled products that are free from contamination. That’s why it is important to invest in the future of your cannabis testing lab by selecting the right analytical equipment at the start of your venture.

EU Regulations Address Heavy Metals In Consumer Products

By Christopher Dacus
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RoHS 3 (EU Directive 2015/863) adds a catch-all “Category 11” of regulated products that includes electronic nicotine delivery systems (ENDS), e-cigarettes, cannabis vaporizers and vape pens. This category becomes effective July 22, 2019. The most significant restricted substance applicable to this category is lead, and RoHS requires regulated products to contain less than 1000 parts per million (ppm). This follows on the heels of California’s new 2019 regulations requiring the testing of contents of cannabis vape cartridges using even stricter limits for lead (which makes sense because it applies to the product being consumed, not the separate electronic components). These regulations may seem unrelated, but anecdotally there have been widespread reports of higher than expected lead content in China-sourced electronic components, including both cartridges and related electronics. Whether metal used in e-cigarette type products is the source of any lead in the actual nicotine, cannabis or other concentrated product is an entirely different topic, but new laws, and in particular the new RoHS catch-all category, make 2019 an important year for any company responsible for certifying or testing lead levels in e-cigarette or vape products.

Background on EU RoHS

RoHS (Restriction of Hazardous Substances) originated in the EU in 2003 as a restriction on hazardous substances in specified categories of electronics and electronic products. Other countries have passed laws styled after RoHS, but only the EU RoHS is addressed here. Unlike some environmental laws, RoHS is not only focused on the safety of products during their life cycle of consumer use, but is designed to keep restricted substances out of landfills and recycling centers.

The original RoHS restricted the use of lead, cadmium, mercury, hexavalent chromium, PBB and PBDE. RoHS now restricts the use of a total of ten substances after the EU added four types of phthalates to its restricted substance list. Compliance with RoHS became a requirement for the use of the CE mark in 2011, and replaced a RoHS compliant mark on restricted products.

RoHS specified categories for regulation include large household appliances, small household appliances, computer equipment, lighting, power tools, toys, certain medical devices, control equipment (smoke alarms, thermostats and their industrial equivalents), and ATM machines. Newly added Category 11, the “catch all” category, includes all other electronic and electrical equipment not covered in the previous categories, including electronic nicotine delivery systems, cannabis vaporizers and vape pens.

RoHS Lead Exemptions Complicate Compliance

RoHS provides numerous exceptions to its strict 1000ppm lead standard that are slated to expire in phases from 2021 through 2024. Most Category 11 exceptions will not expire until 2024. For example, RoHS permits different levels of lead for lead in glass and ceramics, lead in high temperature solders, and lead in copper and aluminum alloys. So, an e-cigarette may contain some parts that are held to the highest level of lead restriction, it may but contain isolated components that (at least through 2024) are held to more permissive standards. While this leeway may reduce manufacturing costs for certain components, it creates greater complexity in testing. Anecdotal reports suggest that especially for products that compete heavily on price, sourcing from lesser-known Chinese foundries has resulted in unpredictable lead levels.

Take Away Points

As vape and e-cigarette companies compete with new features and design elements each year, and companies rely on new manufacturers, keeping up with regulations has proven to be difficult for both U.S. and for EU regulated products. For example, a company has to comply with numerous regulations regarding the oil or concentrate that will ultimately be inhaled by a consumer, and with regulations like RoHS that regulate parts a consumer may never touch or see. Each year, some company comes out with a new set of electronic features that may interact with newly formulated oils or concentrates, other companies compete for features or price points, making these products a moving target when it comes to testing.

Adding lead to many metals makes them easier to work with and therefore cheaper. Anecdotal reports suggest that especially for products that compete heavily on price, sourcing from lesser-known Chinese foundries has resulted in unpredictable lead levels. This can be the result of any number of causes: changes in sub-contractors, uses of industrial equipment for other products that permit higher lead content, or simply unscrupulous management that is willing to risk a contract to save money manufacturing a batch of components. There is speculation that some lead may leach into oil or concentrates in e-cigarette and vape products from the contact between the oil or concentrate and internal heating elements in certain type of products. RoHS compliance with regard to lead levels may reduce the chance of inadvertent lead contamination by such means, and compliance may therefore yield benefits on several regulatory fronts.

Compliance with RoHS for each part of an e-cigarette or vape therefore requires knowing your supplier for each component, but given increased regulation of these products (both the hardware and consumable elements) this can only help compliance with regulations in every relevant jurisdiction.

Heavy Metals Testing: Methods, Strategies & Sampling

By Charles Deibel
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Editor’s Note: The following is based on research and studies performed in their Santa Cruz Lab, with contributions from Mikhail Gadomski, Lab Manager, Ryan Maus Technical Services Analyst, Laurie Post, Director of Food Safety & Compliance, and Charles Deibel, President Deibel Cannabis Labs.


Heavy metals are common environmental contaminants resulting from human industrial activities such as mining operations, industrial waste, automotive emissions, coal fired power plants and farm/house hold water run-off. They affect the water and soil, and become concentrated in plants, animals, pesticides and the sediments used to make fertilizers. They can also be present in low quality glass or plastic packaging materials that can leach into the final cannabis product upon contact. The inputs used by cultivators that can be contaminated with heavy metals include fertilizers, growing media, air, water and even the clone/plant itself.

The four heavy metals tested in the cannabis industry are lead, arsenic, mercury and cadmium. The California Bureau of Cannabis Control (BCC) mandates heavy metals testing for all three categories of cannabis products (inhalable cannabis, inhalable cannabis products and other cannabis and cannabis products) starting December 31, 2018. On an ongoing basis, we recommend cultivators test for the regulated heavy metals in R&D samples any time there are changes in a growing process including changes to growing media, cannabis strains, a water system or source, packaging materials and fertilizers or pesticides. Cultivators should test the soil, nutrient medium, water and any new clones or plants for heavy metals. Pre-qualifying a new packaging material supplier or a water source prior to use is a proactive approach that could bypass issues with finished product.

Testing Strategies

The best approach to heavy metal detection is the use of an instrument called an Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometry (ICP-MS). There are many other instruments that can test for heavy metals, but in order to achieve the very low detection limits imposed by most states including California, the detector must be the ICP-MS. Prior to detection using ICP-MS, cannabis and cannabis related products go through a sample preparation stage consisting of some form of digestion to completely break down the complex matrix and extract the heavy metals for analysis. This two-step process is relatively fast and can be done in a single day, however, the instruments used to perform the digestion are usually the limiting step as the digesters run in a batch of 8-16 samples over a 2-hour period.

Only trace amounts of heavy metals are allowed by California’s BCC in cannabis and cannabis products. A highly sensitive detection system finds these trace amounts and also allows troubleshooting when a product is found to be out of specification.

For example, during the course of testing, we have seen lead levels exceed the BCC’s allowable limit of 0.5 ppm in resin from plastic vape cartridges. An investigation determined that the plastic used to make the vape cartridge was the source of the excessive lead levels. Even if a concentrate passes the limits at the time of sampling, the concern is that over time, the lead leached from the plastic into the resin, increasing the concentration of heavy metals to unsafe levels.

Getting a Representative Sample

The ability to detect trace levels of heavy metals is based on the sample size and how well the sample represents the entire batch. The current California recommended amount of sample is 1 gram of product per batch.  Batch sizes can vary but cannot be larger than 50 pounds of flower. There is no upper limit to the batch sizes for other inhalable cannabis products (Category II).

It is entirely likely that two different 1 gram samples of flower can have two different results for heavy metals because of how small a sample is collected compared to an entire batch. In addition, has the entire plant evenly collected and concentrated the heavy metals into every square inch of it’s leaves? No, probably not. In fact, preliminary research in leafy greens shows that heavy metals are not evenly distributed in a plant. Results from soil testing can also be inconsistent due to clumping or granularity. Heavy metals are not equally distributed within a lot of soil and the one small sample that is taken may not represent the entire batch. That is why it is imperative to take a “random” sample by collecting several smaller samples from different areas of the entire batch, combining them, and taking a 1 g sample from this composite for analysis.


References

California Cannabis CPA. 12/18/2018.  “What to Know About California’s Cannabis Testing Requirements”. https://www.californiacannabiscpa.com/blog/what-to-know-about-californias-cannabis-testing-requirements. Accessed January 10, 2019.

Citterio, S., A. Santagostino, P. Fumagalli, N. Prato, P. Ranalli and S. Sgorbati. 2003.  Heavy metal tolerance and accumulation of Cd, Cr and Ni by Cannabis sativa L.. Plant and Soil 256: 243–252.

Handwerk, B. 2015.  “Modern Marijuana Is Often Laced With Heavy Metals and Fungus.” Smithsonian.com. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/modern-marijuana-more-potent-often-laced-heavy-metals-and-fungus-180954696/

Linger, P.  J. Mussig, H. Fischer, J. Kobert. 2002.  Industrial hemp (Cannabis sativa L.) growing on heavy metal contaminated soil: fibre quality and phytoremediation potential. Ind. Crops Prod. 11, 73–84.

McPartland, J. and K. J McKernan. 2017.  “Contaminants of Concern in Cannabis: Microbes, Heavy Metals and Pesticides”.  In: S. Chandra et al. (Eds.) Cannabis sativa L. – Botany and Biotechnology.  Springer International Publishing AG. P. 466-467.  https://www.researchgate.net/publication/318020615_Contaminants_of_Concern_in_Cannabis_Microbes_Heavy_Metals_and_Pesticides.  Accessed January 10, 2019.

Sidhu, G.P.S.  2016.  Heavy metal toxicity in soils: sources, remediation technologies and challenges.   Adv Plants AgricRes. 5(1):445‒446.