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Detecting Pesticides with CannaSafe Analytics

By Leo Bear-McGuinness

Published: Jan 11, 2019   
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“OK, so as you know, California has always been strict on pesticides. I mean, everything is banned in California, right?” jokes Ini Afia.

Afia is the Executive Lab Director at CannaSafe Analytics, one of California’s most high-profile cannabis testing laboratories. From toxins to terpenes, Cannasafe’s scientists screen for every safety and potency indicator within their clients’ products, and there’s one contaminant that Afia knows better than any other.

“When I started out in the Nevada market, they initially had about 21 or so different pesticides for analyses in cannabis, something that no other state had done or had rigorous rules on at that time,” Afia explains. “So, I had to pretty much develop the methodologies to screen pesticides in the cannabis matrix, which is a very difficult matrix to work with.”

But every state is different. And while Nevada may have been fertile ground for pesticide analyses, it was in California where Afia’s abilities would truly grow.

“Coming to the California market, there were 66 different pesticides and that introduced new challenges. Because not only are you dealing with one set of instrumentation – the LCMS, the triple quad – you now have pesticides that are gas chromatography-amenable that you have to be able to analyze and clean up effectively and analyze the residues on cannabis.”

For Afia, there was a lot more to learn. But through persistence and expertise, he and his team soon developed techniques that could detect the most minute pesticide material without damaging the cannabis matrix. And it’s this unique ability that has helped CannaSafe Analytics become one of the most highly sought-after cannabis labs in California.

Giving a rare insight into the company’s analytical methods, Afia will be a speaker at Analytical Cannabis’ 2019 Expo, which will take place in San Francisco, California from the 2nd-3rd of April. In anticipation of the event, Analytical Cannabis caught up with the lab director to discuss his view on pesticide analysis, state restrictions, and how to inspire the next wave of cannabis science.

The problem with pesticides

Aldicarb. Daminozide. Thiacloprid. The list of harmful cannabis pesticides goes on. And it’s a list Ini Afia knows all too well, even if certain Californian regulators don’t.

“For years, the industry has just been looking at potency and a few other contaminants. Maybe solvents. But no-one’s really looked at what growers are really using out there. How safe is it? How does combusting certain pesticides affect you?” Afia says.

“We have a lot of pesticides on fruit here in California, but there’s not really any research on inhaling. So that’s why CannaSafe’s work is so important.”

Afia has good reason to be concerned. Earlier this year, many cannabis products were recalled from Californian shelves because they failed to meet safe pesticide levels. And these safety issues are most troubling in California, which has the most medicinal cannabis users of any state.

An estimated 916,000 people use the drug as a legal medicine; around 650,000 more patients than the next highest-ranking state, Michigan. Many of these patients suffer from weak metabolisms and immune systems, which put them at a higher risk of infection and pesticide poisoning.

“We need to make sure that we can accurately measure residues on products that will most likely be combusted and inhaled. So medical patients can be sure they’re not introducing other chemicals that worsen their conditions,” Afia says.

“We’re trying to use this as medicine for cancer patients, after all.”

But for the level of scrutiny Afia and his team were trying to achieve, conventional analytical techniques wouldn’t be enough. They had to develop their own.

“A lot of labs use the AOAC clean-up methodology QuEChERS, which is a solid phase extraction method for detection of pesticide residues in food. But that calls for hydration and when you hydrate the dried cannabis, some pesticides that are on the California list will get lost in that water phase,” Afia explains.

“They hydrate and essentially remove the water.”

On the positive side, with contemporary techniques proving inadequate, CannaSafe now had the chance to prove themselves.

“So, long story short, we had to develop something ourselves,” Afia continues.

“A lot of troubleshooting later, and we settled on a combination of a couple of vendors’ products. So we can now get that proprietary product to work at certain ratios, remove matrix interferences and be able to recover all registers at low levels in cannabis.”

The future of pesticide analysis

Just like the plant’s matrix, the cannabis market is a complex beast, constantly shifting with new regulations, new research and new investments; even pesticide controls won’t stay still for long. So any analytical lab looking to stay in the game, should get proactive.

“Most likely California will be adding to their list of 66 [pesticides]. And when they do, we’ll want to make sure that whatever methodology we’re using is compatible,” Afia says.

According to Afia, it’s this kind of responsiveness that’s the key. Not just to progressing cannabis analysis, but the whole industry.

Ahead of his presentation at Analytical Cannabis’ 2019 Expo, Afia stressed this need for adaptability and how it should inspire new scientists.

“My goal is to make sure that people are aware that you don’t have to stick to the same status quo of analysis. You have to think outside the box. That’s my goal in motivating scientists.”

“You know, somebody will eventually come up with something even better and maybe this will be a step towards that. This journey’s only just beginning.”

Ini Afia will present New Strategies in Pesticides Residue Analysis on Cannabis Products at Analytical Cannabis’ 2019 Expo on the 3rd of April at the Hilton, San Francisco Airport Bayfront. You can register here to attend.

Leo Bear-McGuinness

Science Writer & Editor

Leo joined Analytical Cannabis in 2019. From research to regulations and analysis to agriculture, his writing covers all the need-to-know news for the cannabis industry. He holds a Bachelor's in Biology from Newcastle University and a Master's in Science Communication from the University of Edinburgh.


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