Since the beginning of cannabis and hemp legalization, a majority of research has been focused on the medicinal benefits. But more recently, the safety of consumer facing products is under study and scrutiny. As with any young, booming industry, it is very easy to expand beyond the limits of state and federal regulatory bodies, whether it’s the FDA, USDA or OSHA. An uncomfortable stage has been set with legalization before fully understanding possible negative impacts of processes and tools. This places people into a reactive versus proactive position regarding general safety. When something goes wrong, a new policy is created to cover that gap. As more is being learned, we are also seeing emerging concerns around the exposure of cannabis and hemp workers to potentially unhealthy air quality.
So what is the concern? In September 2019, a research group from the Desert Research Institute of Reno Nevada conducted a pilot study to quantify the indoor air quality of various cannabis production and processing facilities. The study identified volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that are known to be hazardous and could be a potential risk to workers. The study was preliminary in its approach but validated the need for further investigation. More importantly, it opened the door to new safety reviews at the state and federal levels.
What is a volatile organic compound? VOCs are emitted as gases from certain solids and liquids. They include a wide variety of chemicals, that can cause either short or long term adverse health effects. Concentrations of VOCs are typically higher indoors than outdoors. VOCs can be chemically synthesized from petroleum products or can occur naturally as terpenes in plants and even some insects. Terpenes play an important role in nature and act as signaling chemicals. These chemicals can protect plants from insects and stress, or attract pollinating insects. Terpenes also play a role in the glorious smells that both cannabis and hemp are known for and provide the unique flavor profiles in different plant strains.
We know that terpenes play an important part in how cannabinoids engage with the human body’s cannabinoid receptors (known as the entourage effect). One of the best ways to describe how this engagement works is as a lock and key analogy. Each person has a custom lock combination in their endocannabinoid system. No two people are the same. The theory is that terpenes and cannabinoids act together rather than independently as the key to medicinal relief. The terpenes are suspected to draw a hormonal response. But it is currently not clearly understood and in similar analogies, could also draw out negative health effects. It is known that both short term and longer term exposure to VOCs can lead to health issues, but how terpenes, as VOCs work is uncertain. In lieu of current research as well as in the absence of definitive proof, an abundance of caution should be applied when exposing personnel, especially in enclosed spaces.
VOCs are not just limited to terpenes. Molds are another common (and undesirable) presence in indoor grows that emit VOCs and perhaps more concerning, microscopic airborne spores. Just like terpene exposure, exposure to mold and the resulting health effects is inconclusive at best, contradictory at worst. The analogy of a lock and key is also applicable to mold exposure. To expand on this analogy, let’s say you have 20 people exposed to the same mold in the same location for the same amount of time. Perhaps only two of them will show a negative health response. Maybe none of them. Maybe all of them. It can be wildly variable. Even the EPA does not have published limits for exposure to molds simply because of the high variability in and difficulty quantifying health effects. However, enough research does exist, as inconclusive as it may be, to cause serious concern about the effects of mold. As such, VOC and mold exposures should be treated with the same caution when it comes to worker safety and understanding how to reduce potential worker exposures.
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