A New Way to Measure the Presence of Thirdhand Smoke

A study from a team of thirdhand smoke researchers has found nicotelline, a tobacco-related chemical compound, to be a better marker for measuring the presence of tobacco smoke residue. This marker can be useful to identify the presence of toxic second- and thirdhand smoke components found in the air and dust.

February 14, 2021

By: Eurasia Review

A new study by thirdhand smoke researchers shows that one of several toxic components in the air is tobacco smoke particulates.

This study by Dr. Noel Aquilina was recently published in 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. Worldwide, secondhand smoke from cigarette smoking releases about 22 million kilograms of nicotine and about 135 million kilograms of particulate matter into the atmosphere each year. What is the fate of those particles?

Over the past 30 years, researchers have tried to find a marker of exposure to ambient secondhand smoke. Since 1991, the main marker was nicotine. Because nicotine is found almost exclusively in the gas-phase of secondhand smoke, measures of nicotine underestimate the exposure to the particle-phase of secondhand smoke. Thus, nicotine is not a very good marker of the secondhand smoke in particulate matter. 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, University of California, San Francisco, thirdhand smoke researcher Dr. Peyton Jacob III investigated nicotelline, a tripyridine alkaloid found in tobacco leaves and tobacco smoke, as a potential marker for tobacco smoke in particulate matter. The results of this study were not sufficient to confirm the desired marker characteristics.

In 2016, Dr Aquilina, one of the few European Affiliate Researchers of the Thirdhand Smoke Research Consortium, was invited by collaborate with the team at UCSF to:

-Coordinate a comprehensive air sampling campaign in several countries with different climates, to show the ubiquitous presence of nicotelline in airborne samples. Samples were collected in six cities in California including San Francisco; Birmingham, UK; three sites in Hong Kong; one city in China and in Msida, Malta.

-Develop an analytical method to extract nicotine, nicotelline and other tobacco-related compounds from airborne samples.

-Validate the extraction method against a standard reference material and show that nicotelline can be detected reliably at very low concentrations.

-Carry out tests to verify the atmospheric stability of nicotelline in relation to nicotine in particulate matter.

Results of this study show that niotelline is a suitable marker for tobacco smoke in secondhand smoke particulate matter, and that it is present even at very low concentrations in a variety of geographic locations worldwide.  

Why are these results important?

There is no safe level of exposure to secondhand smoke. In 2010, about 1% of the global mortality was attributed to SHS exposure. Although airborne particulate matter is generally loaded with several contaminants that can be mutagenic, genotoxic and carcinogenic due to different sources, now it is confirmed that a small load of particulate matter 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 second- and thirdhand smoke through inhalation of particulate matter even in non-smoking environments.

The importance and significance of this study is that it has opened the door to further research into tobacco-specific carcinogens present in particulate matter.  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 inhalation of secondary particles re-emitted from surfaces. This is where nicotelline could be used, to distinguish the contribution of past indoor smoking from what is an unavoidable contamination originating outdoors.


Note: Content was edited for style and length

Click here to read the research study.

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