Ubiquitous atmospheric contamination by tobacco smoke: Nicotine and a new marker for tobacco smoke-derived particulate matter, nicotelline

Noel J. Aquilina*, Christopher M. Havel, Polly Cheung, Roy M. Harrison, Kin Fai Ho, Neal L. Benowitz, Peyton Jacob

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

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Second Hand Smoke (SHS) has always been primarily linked with indoor pollution. To date nicotine was the favoured marker for SHS alongside measurements of particulate matter (PM) levels. As nicotine is mainly found in the gas-phase and reactive in the outdoor environment it is not ideal as a marker for the SHS-driven particulate component in PM. Nicotelline, a minor tobacco alkaloid that is stable, found almost exclusively in the particle phase and easy to quantify even at low concentrations, is being proposed as a better marker. It is the first study using bisulfate-treated quartz fiber filters to show that airborne nicotine (gas+particle phase) is directly proportional to airborne nicotelline in countries that have different climates. The analytical method developed has been validated to show that the use of untreated filters is suitable for the quantification of nicotelline even at low concentrations. Although nicotelline exhibits a seasonal and geographical variation, this is the first comprehensive study which demonstrates the ubiquitous presence of nicotelline in PM from outdoor air samples collected in the USA (0.1–285.6 pgm−3), UK (2.3–9.1 pgm−3), Hong Kong (3.8–109.3 pgm−3) and Malta (4.2–280.8 pgm−3). From the nicotelline apportionment factor of 1589 ng/mg of tobacco smoke PM we estimate the fraction of outdoor airborne PM derived from SHS to be in the range of 0.03–0.08%. While it is unlikely for tobacco smoke-related toxics in outdoor PM to be considered a major health hazard, in heavily polluted microenvironments this marker would be useful in tracing the presence of SHS and emerging Third Hand Smoke components that form or are found in airborne and settled PM that could induce serious health effects.

Original languageEnglish
Article number106417
Pages (from-to)106417
JournalEnvironment International
Early online date6 Feb 2021
Publication statusPublished - May 2021

Bibliographical note

Acknowledgements: The authors would like to thank the following persons in helping out to provide several filters for this study. Lane Sharon, Brenda Saldana from the California Air Resources Board (CARB), USA. Maria Thompson from the University of Birmingham, UK. Sara Fenech, Ryan Vella, Renato Camilleri and Ian Fenech Conti from the University of Malta, Malta.

Funding Information: This work was supported by the California Tobacco-Related Disease Research Program Grant 23PT-0013 - Impacts of Thirdhand Smoke on Public Health (Phase-2), National Institute on Drug Abuse, P30 DA012393, the National Center for Research Resources, S10 RR026437, UCSF Bland Lane Center of Excellence on Secondhand Smoke.


  • Alkaloid
  • Atmospheric marker
  • Nicotelline
  • Nicotine
  • Particulate matter
  • Second hand smoke

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Environmental Science(all)


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