In a groundbreaking study conducted in Oceania, researchers from the University of Auckland have discovered traces of methamphetamine, nicotine, caffeine, and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) in the downtown Auckland air.
The investigation, which took place at a pollution monitoring site on Customs Street, close to the bottom of Queen Street. It is the first of its kind in both New Zealand and Australia.
The team, led by Master of Science student Olivia Johnson and Dr. Joel Rindelaub, a research fellow in the School of Chemical Sciences, analyzed the samples caught by filters at the monitoring site.
The largest concentration of methamphetamine detected was 104 picograms (a picogram is one-trillionth of a gram) per cubic meter of air. The average for ten samples taken over five weeks was 24.8 picograms per cubic meter.
“Assuming an active dose of 5 milligrams and 16 cubic meters of air inhaled per person each day, it would take an individual over 8,000 years to inhale an active dose,” the researchers explained in their paper published in the journal Atmospheric Pollution Research.
Surprisingly, the methamphetamine concentrations found in Auckland’s air were higher than those detected in cities like Barcelona. The study also revealed an increase in airborne drug concentrations during the week leading up to the Christmas holidays and over New Year’s Eve.
Of the four drugs studied, nicotine had the highest average concentration at 4.91 nanograms (a nanogram is one billionth of a gram) per cubic meter, which is lower than levels found in many cities overseas. Caffeine and THC were detected at lower average concentrations compared to studies conducted elsewhere.
“The results aren’t as concerning as a headline might make them sound,” said Dr. Rindelaub. “However, they highlight that we really don’t know as much as we should about what’s in the air that we breathe.” For context, it is worth noting that concentrations of PM2.5 and PM10 particulates in the air are typically measured in micrograms (one millionth of a gram).
The researchers believe that airborne monitoring of drugs could complement wastewater analyses. This system tracks drug consumption in communities across the country. Researchers test wastewater for substances like cocaine, fentanyl, heroin, methamphetamine, and MDMA.
This innovative technique could potentially facilitate assessments of policies such as restrictions on tobacco products. Furthermore, caffeine concentrations seem to correlate with urban pedestrian counts, suggesting a potential proxy for urban activity.
Professor Gordon Miskelly and Hamish Patel, a PhD candidate and air quality scientist at Mote Ltd., also contributed to the study. The team used liquid chromatography with tandem mass spectrometry to analyze samples collected from December 7, 2020, to January 11, 2021.
The investigation exclusively focused on methamphetamine, nicotine, caffeine, and THC, leaving the presence of other drugs in the air unknown. In a separate study published in December, Dr. Rindelaub and colleagues revealed that microplastics in Auckland’s air were equivalent to over 3 million plastic bottles falling from the sky annually.
Indoor air pollution is also an issue. Rindelaub found traces of polyester, nylon, and PVC in the air of a university lecture theatre. He was there delivering a TEDx talk on pollution. Rindelaub states that air pollution links to more than 3,300 premature deaths per year in Aotearoa.
Air pollution has far-reaching impacts on both the Earth and human health. The consequences of air pollution are multifaceted. Various aspects of our environment, ecosystems, and public health show their observable presence.
Air pollution contributes to a wide range of environmental issues, including:
Air pollution poses significant risks to human health, including:
To address the impacts of air pollution on the Earth and human health, governments, industries, and individuals need to work together. Communities can implement strategies that reduce emissions, improve air quality, and transition towards cleaner, more sustainable energy sources.
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