Secondhand Coke? Detecting drug use in air samples

Airborne concentrations of cocaine correlate to the amount of drugs seized by police. And also to tumor insurgence. Should secondhand coke be considered a health threat?

Okay, so there’s contact high, and then there’s this…

Places with greater cocaine and marijuana use have higher levels of these drugs in the surrounding atmosphere. ScienceNOW reports.

Previous studies have shown that illicit drugs find their way into the atmosphere. In 2007, small amounts of cocaine were detected in the air of Rome and along the coast of southern Italy.

"We considered it a curiosity," says study researcher Angelo Cecinato at the Institute of Atmospheric Pollution Research in Rome. That is, until further research revealed that atmospheric concentrations of some drugs were higher wherever drug use was more prevalent.

Trying to estimate drug use in any given area often means relying on indirect information. But, Cecinato and colleagues reasoned, measuring the amount of drugs in the air might be accurate, fast, and cheap.

  1. So they analyzed the air in 20 spots in 8 regions of Italy in winter and 39 spots in 14 regions in summer.
  2. They collected air samples, extracted the contaminants, and analyzed the results for cocaine and cannabinoids.
  3. They also tested for common pollutants to rule out false positives caused by other compounds.
  4. Finally, they compared their results against records of drug-related criminal activity.

They found that airborne concentrations of cocaine correlated with the amount of drugs seized by the police. The average concentrations of cocaine also correlated strongly with users' requests for detox treatment.

(They also turned up some statistical relationships between cocaine levels and some cancers or tumor insurgence, and between cannabinoid levels and mental disorders.)

So are there possible health risks to nonusers? "I wouldn't sound any alarm bells based on this one study,” says Wilson Compton of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. “But the researchers did find this link, and it's worth further exploration.” Second-hand cigarette smoke wasn't considered a health threat until comparatively recently.

The work was published in Science of the Total Environment this week.

From ScienceNOW.

Image: US Drug Enforcement Administration

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