Tag Archives: triple quad

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.

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.