Study shows airborne particulate matter is also contaminated with tobacco smoke-driven particulates

February 12, 2021

In a courtesy call to HE the President of Malta at San Anton Palace on Thursday, February 11, 2021, Dr Noel Aquilina from the Department of Chemistry, accompanied by Professor Emmanuel Sinagra, Head of the Department of Chemistry and Dean of the Faculty of Science at the University of Malta, presented the findings of a landmark study. This study shows and confirms that airborne particulate matter (PM), apart from several toxic components, is also contaminated with tobacco smoke-driven particulates.

After 30 years, Dr Noel Aquilina, alongside world renowned tobacco smoke-related researchers, Emeritus Professor Neal L. Benowitz and Dr Peyton Jacob III from the University of California San Francisco (UCSF), USA and atmospheric chemist and Fellow of the Royal Society, Professor Roy M. Harrison, from the University of Birmingham, UK, ended the wait for the elusive marker!

This remarkable study was published in one of the most prestigious journals of air quality, Environment International and was supported by the California Tobacco-Related Disease Research Program, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the National Center for Research Resources and the UCSF Bland Lane Center of Excellence on Secondhand Smoke.

About 6 trillion cigarettes were smoked worldwide in 2016. Considering a conservative value, worldwide, Secondhand Smoke (SHS) (from cigarette smoking alone), releases about 22 million kilograms of nicotine and about 135 million kilograms of PM into the atmosphere each year. What is the fate of those particles?

The criteria for an ideal marker are that this is expected to behave similarly to the material for which it is a marker (in this case, cigarette SHS PM) under a range of environmental conditions and can be detected at low concentrations. For this purpose, historically, several studies tried to find a marker to show exposure to ambient SHS. Since 1991, the main marker of choice was Nicotine. Later studies have verified that nicotine is found almost exclusively in the gas-phase and would underestimate the exposure to the particle-phase of SHS; ages differently from other substances thus explaining the poor correlation with other SHS components; it has high adsorption rate to surfaces and easily desorbs from surfaces in the absence of active smoking. This meant that Nicotine was neither adequate nor suitable as a marker to SHS in PM. Over the last 3 decades, 16 different markers were tried and tested but all failed in one way or another to satisfy the necessary marker characteristics.


In 2013, at the Division of Cardiology, Clinical Pharmacology Program, Department of Medicine, UCSF, Nicotelline, a tripyridine alkaloid found in tobacco leaves and tobacco smoke, having a low volatility, led to hypothesize that it would be found mainly in the PM of SHS and should therefore be a useful tracer for tobacco smoke PM. It was thought that Nicotelline would be expected to be more stable in the environment than previously tested tracers for SHS. The 2013 study led by Dr Jacob III, was limited to a chamber, highly controlled environment, dealing with very few short-time airborne samples and deposited dust samples. Those findings were not sufficient to verify the requested marker characteristics.

In 2016, Dr Aquilina, one of the few European Affiliate Researchers of the Thirdhand Smoke (THS) Research Consortium, was invited by UCSF to:The samples for the test to show the most important and necessary property for a marker, atmospheric stability, and hence confirm its suitability as a marker, have been collected on the University of Malta, Msida campus in 2018 using the Mobile Air Quality Laboratory equipment operated by the Faculty of Science. A suite of real-time monitors were used in conjunction with localised meteorological data to verify the atmospheric conditions which could influence the stability of Nicotelline on filters during sampling.

The study has shown that:Given the abovementioned health implications, what does this study add to the scientific community?

Although airborne PM is generally loaded with several pollutants that can be mutagenic, genotoxic and carcinogenic due to different sources, now it is confirmed that a small load of PM comes exclusively from tobacco smoke, hence air is also contaminated with tobacco smoke.

Although the load appears to be too low to be of an immediate hazard, this marker has set a new standard on the possible chronic exposure to SHS/THS through inhalation of PM even in non-smoking environments.

The importance and significance of this study is that it has opened a gateway to research the potent tobacco-specific carcinogens present in PM, and their health implications in inducing lung cancer, but not only, associated with a continuous exposure. These are THS components which are the frontier of science associated with tobacco smoke and its health effects. There is the need to look into additional exposure pathways, including dermal uptake, hand-to-mouth transfer and by inhalation of secondary particles that form after re-emission from surfaces. This is where a suitable particle-phase marker will be used, to distinguish the contribution of past indoor smoking from what is an unavoidable contamination originating outdoors.

University of Malta

Related Nicotine Articles from Brightsurf:

Nicotine vapour more rewarding for adolescents than adults
University of Guelph researchers are the first to discover that adolescents react differently to e-cigarette vapour than adults.

Understanding the link between nicotine use and misuse of 'benzos'
Lately, misuse of prescription benzodiazepines (such as alprazolam or Xanax, and diazepam or Valium) has been linked to nicotine use.

Popular electronic cigarette may deliver nicotine more effectively than others
When it comes to nicotine delivery, not all electronic cigarettes are created equally, according to Penn State researchers.

Fetal nicotine exposure harms breathing in infants
Exposure to nicotine during development inhibits the function of neurons controlling the tongue, according to research in newborn rats recently published in eNeuro.

Diabetes drug relieves nicotine withdrawal
A drug commonly used to treat Type II diabetes abolishes the characteristic signs of nicotine withdrawal in rats and mice, according to new research published in JNeurosci.

The nicotine in e-cigarettes appears to impair mucus clearance
E-cigarette vaping with nicotine appears to hamper mucus clearance from the airways, according to new research published online in the American Thoracic Society's American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine.

Truth telling about tobacco and nicotine
In 'Truth Telling about Tobacco and Nicotine,' PRC researchers explain that, although there is agreement among researchers about evidence that vaping can be less harmful than combustible cigarettes, the tobacco control community remains divided about how to communicate -- or even whether to communicate -- information about the relative risks of tobacco and nicotine products.

This is a neuron on nicotine
Newly developed sensors visually illustrate how nicotine affects cells from the inside out.

New data suggests nicotine while pregnant alters genes
A University of Houston biomedical research team is reporting that a possible cure for addiction may be found by following the pathways of significantly altered dopamine neurons in newborns who were chronically exposed to nicotine in utero.

Ex-smokers might be better off with high rather than low nicotine e-cigs
Vapers using low rather than high nicotine e-cigarettes may be using their devices more intensely, potentially increasing the risk of exposure to toxins in the vapour, according to new research funded by Cancer Research UK and published in Addiction today.

Read More: Nicotine News and Nicotine Current Events is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to