Read the full commentary by Richard J. Silliboy et. al. (Cell Press)

“The Loring Airforce Base (AFB) in Aroostook County, Maine, USA was active from 1947 through 1994. Like many military sites, it has a substantial history of pollution from a wide variety of toxins. Currently, some of the AFB land belongs to the Micmac Nation, an Indigenous tribe, who are very concerned about the contamination on the land. Starting in 2019, a group of community activists, research scientists, and tribal members came together to test methods for cleaning the land. This backstory features perspectives from six project participants.

What are the goals of this project? How did you decide what to investigate?

Dr. Sara L. Nason (Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station): The overall goal of our work is to improve the quality of the land on the former Loring AFB, which now belongs to the Aroostook band of the Micmac Nation. Specifically, we are testing the use of fiber hemp plants for phytoremediation of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). PFAS are a class of emerging contaminants that are highly toxic at low concentrations and are frequently found on former military bases owing to their use in firefighting foams (Hagstrom et al., 2021). They are often called “forever chemicals,” as they are highly resistant to degradation. Part of the land acquired by the Micmac people was formerly used as a firefighting testing area. The US Airforce has detected concerning levels of PFAS in groundwater at this site, but did not conduct any remediation (Baker, 2018). There are limited technologies available for removing PFAS from soil (Mahinroosta and Senevirathna, 2020). Phytoremediation, although minimally tested for PFAS, is an appealing option due to low costs and the potential for community involvement. Hemp is a large, fast-growing plant that has been reported as an effective remediator for other types of contaminants (Campbell et al., 2002Linger et al., 2002Ahmad et al., 2016). Therefore, we set up a series of field tests to assess the potential for hemp to remove PFAS from the soil at Loring AFB. This topic is interesting to me from a research perspective and also fits the interests of community members involved and the goals of the Micmac people.

Ms. Chelli J. Stanley (Upland Grassroots): The goals are to learn if fiber hemp can clean PFAS chemicals from soil and to learn what hemp does with the chemicals—where does it store them, does hemp break them down at all—and then use that knowledge to clean polluted soil. We decided to work on PFAS because it was the chemical that best fit everyone’s needs. It was within the research interests of the scientists at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station (CAES) we are working with and has polluted the land that the Micmac Nation are concerned about. We discussed several options like petroleum, pesticides, asbestos and heavy metals and collectively decided to start with PFAS. Although our ultimate goals are the same, each team has different specific short-term goals. The scientists need good samples. Upland Grassroots would like to understand what fiber hemp is doing with the chemicals. People at the Aroostook Band of Micmacs want to know the levels of pollution in different places and if other wild plants are taking up PFAS.”…