With recent moves to permit sales of cannabis in Canada and some U.S. states, commercial operations are popping up in various locations. Whenever new industries emerge, there are often new environmental impacts to consider and air pollution seems to be an increasingly common problem with cannabis too. Not from smoking, but rather from the greenhouse operations where it is grown under lights in high-density conditions to save space. It turns out that these intensive grow operations can have vented air emissions that are rather smelly, as this one news item describes.
Like all plants, cannabis emits volatile chemical compounds at various stages in its growth. Some work has been reported in research literature, identifying over 200 chemicals in the air, although I suspect that paper missed a lot of odorous sulfur compounds that are often associated with “skunky” smells. A lot of the odor compounds are terpenes or their relatives (e.g. limonene, pinene, linalool), and the paper mentions cymene, benzaldehyde, nonanal, and decanol as key odor chemicals. None of these compounds are particularly hazardous (at least at the normally low concentrations found around plants). None of them are specific to cannabis either. Lots of them are produced by various plants, in varying amounts and combinations. A lot of plant-based essential oils that you can buy contain similar chemicals.
The environmental issue arises if the odor interferes with the neighbouring property and their ability to use and enjoy their property. The Ontario government website has some information about odors and property-owner rights . Under Ontario’s Environmental Protection Act (Section 14) odor-emitting industries can get into legal trouble because they are emitting a “contaminant” that causes an “adverse effect”.
From an engineering point of view, the control of odorous emissions like this is not unlike many other industries with odour concerns, like sewage treatment plants, rendering plants, some food manufacturers, and some chemical manufacturers. The first step is containment, so that odor emissions are not just leaking out of the buildings from a multitude of locations. If everything can be efficiently captured in one or two well-controlled ventilation systems, then emissions controls can be applied to those vent streams before they discharge into the environment.
It’s not clear at this point what type of emission controls are best for both efficiency and cost points of view. Usually there are several possible solutions, so engineers have to figure out which one is the most cost-effective. Standard approaches to odor control run a range of technologies from wet scrubbing to activated carbon capture, to biofiltration and possibly photochemical oxidation. High temperature thermal oxidation is another option, but probably overkill and too expensive for this application. One solution may not fit all commercial operations either. Each location would need a thorough engineering analysis and assessment for a good recommendation, which is something done by chemical and environmental engineers (and some mechanical engineers too). Companies that rushed into production without doing these assessments may get stuck with expensive retro-fits once the Ministry of Environment comes knocking.
So, with every new “industry” there are issues that come up that may or may not have been anticipated by the business people. Those issues will keep regulators and engineering consultants busy for a while.