A new project in the United States is helping an indigenous tribe clean up contaminated land.
‘Forever chemicals’ is a term used to describe a class of human-made chemicals called PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances). These chemicals have been used in commercial products since the 1940s and can be found in everything from cosmetics to cookware, and their nickname comes from the fact that they can take thousands of years to degrade.
Members of the Micmac Nation have started working with activists and scientists to rid some of the tribe’s land from these toxic chemicals by having hemp plants pull them straight from the soil.
In 2018, the Aroostook band of the Micmac Nation reclaimed 800 acres of land in Maine from the U.S. government. Included in this land was part of the Loring Air Force Base, which had previously been used to train firefighters. Firefighting foam contains PFAS, and an inspection conducted by the U.S. Air Force in 2018 found “concerning levels” of forever chemicals in groundwater at the site.
The tribe began working with environmental clean-up organisation Upland Grassroots and scientists from the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station to analyse the land and see what could be done to decontaminate it.
The group decided to try a technique called phytoremediation because most proven methods for removing forever chemicals from the soil are expensive and energy-intensive. During phytoremediation, crops are planted on a contaminated site. When the plants then pull water and nutrients from the soil, they also extract the contaminants.
The technique has been used to extract chemicals from the ground at bomb ranges and to pull heavy metal pollution from the soil around old mines.
More research is needed to figure out whether phytoremediation could extract enough forever chemicals to make the land useful again, but Chief E. Peter Paul of the Micmac Nation is excited by the possibility.
“This is just the beginning,” he said.
“We’re in the beginning stages of learning what can be done with this land that the United States has not been wanting to deal with for one reason or another. What other chemicals can hemp extract from the ground? Can we help make it a productive habitat again?”