Potential Hazards of Cannabis Extraction Facilities

Several instances of fires or explosions at facilities that extract hash oil has been consequential of cannabis legalization at the state level.  In the past five years, some 10 fires or hazardous incidents have occurred at Cannabis Extraction Facilities that extract butane hash oil (BHO) in the 33 states where cannabis is legal for medical or recreational use.

BHO has gained popularity in the past few years and at this point, has surpassed the traditional hash. This clear, golden brown cannabis derivative also known as honey oil, shatter or wax has some distinct advantages over traditional cannabis; it has a very slim scent, either in solid form or vapor, is portable, and can achieve intense effects with small amounts. That’s because BHO is extremely concentrated; a pound of cannabis usually generates 1/10 to 1/5 of a pound of BHO.

In order to comprehend why extraction labs are eminent to hazardous explosions, an understanding about BHO is crucial. As the name suggests, this process involves taking large amounts of ground cannabis, putting it in a cylindrical glass or stainless-steel canister, and infusing butane solvent through the canister. The process strips the cannabis of its cannabinoid-rich oils, producing a mixture that’s then purified and processed to other byproducts.

Butane Removal Methods

Two methods of butane removal are common, one method includes boiling it off in a hot water bath, another method involves the use of a vacuum pump or chamber to bring the butane gas to boiling point in lower temperatures, separating butane from the plant extracts. The resulting concentrate can then be vaporized or consumed as dabs.

Most of the BHO explosions have taken place in facilities that were not properly ventilated, where the equipment was moved around often, potentially damaging and causing leaks in the butane lines.

Butane hash oil

Butane hash oil production can be explosive even with appropriate safety precautions, but some operators increase the risk by attempting to speed the process by introducing heat. Once the butane passes through the cannabis particles, a sticky substance remains in the container, the solvent will naturally boil off at room temperature (30 degrees Fahrenheit, technically). But the slurry must be worked a little to push all the small bubbles of residual butane, and heat quickens the pace. Cannabis extraction, in particular, can be a hazardous vocation, one that involves dangerous chemicals and complicated apparatus. A dearth of experience, along with lack of training while and excess of confidence, will eventually create catastrophic outcomes.

Hazards of Cannabis Extraction Facility – Safety Codes

Fire Protection Association, a nonprofit that develops safety codes and standards has drafted a cannabis chapter for the Fire Code of the National. NFPA hopes this new cannabis chapter, will give extractors and other cannabis industry businesses guidelines on how to fireproof their work environments and safely operate complicated machinery.

This chapter comes amid a rash of extraction explosions and covers everything from ventilation and exhaust to the use of different solvents as well as staffing and training. Fire marshals, as well as building authorities in all level of municipalities in states or local governing bodies eventually should integrate the guidelines in this chapter into their own fire codes.

The cannabis chapter includes guidelines for cultivators and retailers but mostly focuses on extractors, according to the NFPA. There are sections pertaining to the different solvents that are used, staffing and training, signage, documentation for equipment that doesn’t have a listing and how code officials can identify the equipment they’re inspecting.

The chapter also addresses fumigation and pesticide application for growers, as well as egress; the security threats associated with cannabis trade, has derived most retailers, and growers as well as extractors to fortified facilities to prevent intruders. Making emergency exits a problem and a potential hazard of workers trapping inside if there were a fire.

The cannabis chapter contains clauses instructing the proper methods to handle ventilation and exhaust, based on the different solvents introduced into the process. This document also includes data on standby power systems for lighting, ventilation and smoke and gas detection.

While many cannabis industry officials have applauded this new chapter, both from safety improvements and the legitimacy point of view which comes with being recognized by a national fire safety organization, they hope for more steps to follow this initiative.

Cannabis Extraction Facility – Common safety issues

In the cannabis industry, especially the extraction side, fire hazards are more the rule than the exception. One major issue is the lack of education and training. Extraction utilizes passing dangerous gases through complicated equipment, however, the operators involved in the operation usually aren’t properly trained in the process.

There’s also a lack of understanding of the potential hazards. Another common problem is leakage of gases used in extraction: Butane and propane can be combustible; CO2 leaks can result in asphyxiation.

In many instances, when the air in the extraction room is tested, high levels of dangerous gases showed in the readings.

While CO2 asphyxiation hasn’t been a considerable issue in the cannabis industry, it has happened in other business sectors such as restaurants.

Proper design of the extraction facility, by incorporating all the safety precautions in the design, will be a great assurance on highest ROI (Return on Investment) and eliminations of the risks. As all other cases the best approach is to assign competent professionals SME’s (subject matter experts) in the industry niche to address the design challenges.

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