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Pesticide 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, Dr. Laurie Post, Director of Food Safety & Compliance, Andy Sechler, Lab Director, Toby Astill, Senior Business Development Leader at Perkin Elmer and Charles Deibel, President of Deibel Cannabis Labs.


Pesticides represent the leading cause of batch failures in the cannabis industry. They are also the hardest tests to run in the laboratory, even one equipped with state-of-the-art equipment. The best instruments on the market are HPLC and GC dual mass spectrometer detectors, called “HPLC-qqq”, “GC-qqq,” or just triple quads.

As non-lab people, we envision a laboratory that can take a cannabis sample, inject it into a triple quad and have the machine quickly and effortlessly print out a report of pesticide values. Unfortunately, this is far from reality. The process is much more hands on and complex.In the current chemistry lab, trained analysts have to first program the triple quads to look for the pesticides of concern; in cannabis pesticide testing, this is done by programming the first of two mass spectrometers to identify a single (precursor) mass that is characteristic of the pesticide in question. For BCC requirements in California, this has to be done for all 66 pesticides, one at a time.

Next, these precursor ions are degraded into secondary chemicals called the “product” ions, also called transition ions. The second of the two mass spectrometers is used to analyze these transition ions. This process is graphed and the resulting spectrum is analyzed by trained chemists in the lab, pesticide by pesticide, for all the samples processed that day. If the lab analyzes 10 samples, that translates to 660 spectra to analyze (66 pesticides x 10 samples). When looking at the spectra for each pesticide, the analysts must compare the ratios of the precursor ions to the product ions.

Confirmation Testing

If these spectra indicate a given pesticide may be present, the chemists must then compare the ratios between the precursor and the products. If these ratios are not what is expected, then the analyst must perform confirmation testing to prove the precursor mass either is or is not the pesticide of concern. If the ratios are not what is expected, it means the molecule is similar to the pesticide in question, but may not be that pesticide. This confirmatory testing is key to producing accurate results and not failing batches when dealing with closely related chemicals. This process of analyzing spectra is done in all labs that are performing pesticide testing. In this fledgling industry, there are few published cannabis pesticide methods. 

The need for this type of confirmation testing doesn’t happen all of the time, but when it does, it will take longer than our targeted three-day turn-around time. In the picture above, one precursor mass is ionized into several product masses; but only two are large enough to be used for comparison. In this hypothetical situation, two product masses are produced for every one precursor, the expected ion abundance ratio should be less than 30%. When performing any confirmatory testing, if the ion abundance ratio is >30%, it means the original precursor molecule was not the pesticide of concern. For example, if the ion abundance ratio was 50%, then the original molecule broke down into too many parts; it was not the pesticide we were looking for. This ion abundance ratio threshold was established by FANCO, the international organization that sets guidelines for all pesticide testing.

Testing Strategies

Methodology: In this fledgling industry, there are few published cannabis pesticide methods. The identification of the precursor mass and product ions are not always published, leaving labs to research which ions should be used. This adds to the potential for differences between lab results. Once selected, labs should validate their research, through a series of experiments to ensure the correct precursor and transition (product) ions are being used in the method.

Sample Preparation: Beyond the time-consuming work that is required to develop sound pesticide methods, the extraction step is absolutely critical for credible results. If the pesticides aren’t fully extracted from the cannabis product, then the results will be lower than expected. Sample preparations are often not standardized between labs, so unless a given extraction technique is validated for accuracy, there is the possibility for differences between labs.

Getting a Representative Sample

The current California recommended amount of sample is one gram of product per batch. Batch sizes can vary greatly and it is entirely likely that two different one gram samples can have two different results for pesticides. Has the entire plant been evenly coated with exactly the same amount of pesticide onto every square inch of its leaves? No, probably not. That is why it is imperative to take a “random” sample, by taking several smaller samples from different areas of the entire batch.

Sampling Plans: We can learn a lot from the manufacturing and sampling best practices developed by the food industry through the years. If a food manufacturer is concerned with the possibility of having a bacteria pathogen, like Salmonella, in their finished product, they test the samples coming off their production lines at a statistically relevant level. This practice (theory) is called the sampling plan and it can easily be adapted to the cannabis industry. The basic premise is that the more you test, the higher your likelihood of catching a contaminate. Envision a rectangular swimming pool, but instead of water, it’s filled with jello. In this gelatinous small pool, 100 pennies are suspended at varying levels. The pennies represent the contaminates.

Is the pool homogenized? Is jello evenly represented in the entire pool? Yes. 

Is your concentrate evenly distributed in the extraction vessel? Yes. The question is, where are the pennies in that extraction vessel? The heavy metals, the microbial impurities and the pesticides should be evenly distributed in the extraction vessel but they may not be evenly represented in each sample that is collected. Unfortunately, this is the bane of the manufacturing industry and it’s the unfortunate reality in the food industry. If you take one random cup of jello, will you find the penny? Probably not. But it you take numerous 1 cup samples from random areas within the batch, you increase your chances of finding the contaminate. This is the best approach for sampling any cannabis product.

The best way to approve a batch of cannabis product is to take several random samples and composite them. But you may need to run several samples from this composite to truly understand what is in the batch. In the swimming pool example, if you take one teaspoon scoop, will you find one of the pennies? The best way to find one of the pennies is to take numerous random samples, composite them and increase the number of tests you perform at the lab. This should be done on any new vendor/cultivator you work with, in order to help establish the safety of the product.

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.