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Illegal drugs can now be detected in the air

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. 

What the research team found in the air

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).

How detecting drugs in the air can be used in the future

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.

More about air pollution

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.

Environmental Impact

Air pollution contributes to a wide range of environmental issues, including:

  • Climate change: Greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide, trap heat in the Earth’s atmosphere. This leads to global warming and climate change. This results in melting polar ice caps, rising sea levels, extreme weather events, and alterations in ecosystems and wildlife habitats.
  • Acid rain: Pollutants like sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides react with water, oxygen, and other substances in the atmosphere to form sulfuric and nitric acids, which fall as acid rain. Acid rain can damage forests, bodies of water, soil quality, and even human-made structures like buildings and monuments.
  • Ozone depletion: Some air pollutants, such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and halons, break down the ozone layer in the Earth’s stratosphere. The ozone layer protects us from harmful ultraviolet (UV) radiation. Ozone depletion can lead to increased UV radiation reaching the Earth’s surface, causing harm to humans, animals, and plants.
  • Ecosystem damage: Air pollution can disrupt the balance of ecosystems, harming plant life, reducing biodiversity, and impacting the food chain. Pollutants can also accumulate in bodies of water. This leads to issues like eutrophication, algal blooms, and “dead zones” where oxygen levels are too low to support marine life.

Human Health Impact

Air pollution poses significant risks to human health, including:

  • Respiratory issues: Exposure to air pollutants, such as particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide, and ground-level ozone, can cause or aggravate respiratory problems like asthma, bronchitis, and lung infections.
  • Cardiovascular problems: Increased risks of heart attacks, strokes, and other cardiovascular diseases are linked to air pollution. This is due to the inflammation and damage it can cause to blood vessels and the heart.
  • Cancer: Long-term exposure to certain air pollutants, like benzene and formaldehyde, can increase the risk of developing cancer, particularly lung cancer.
  • Premature death: Researchers have linked air pollution to millions of premature deaths worldwide. People living in heavily polluted areas are more likely to experience reduced life expectancy. This is due to illnesses caused or exacerbated by poor air quality.
  • Cognitive and developmental issues: Studies have found associations between air pollution exposure and cognitive decline, reduced cognitive function in children, and adverse effects on brain development.

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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