Cocaine is presently the most abused substance in Americas; however, the stimulant is gaining new advocates at an alarming rate in western Europe as well.

In 2005, a group of researches from Italy analyzed water samples from the Po River in northern Italy for the presence of cocaine and its main urinary metabolite – benzoylecgonine (BE)[1]. They took samples each day for four different days and extracted cocaine and BE by solid-phase extraction followed by analysis on LCMS/MS with electrospray ionization.

Though the concentrations of benzoylecgonine and cocaine in the river were small – 25 and 1.2 ng/L, it is equivalent to 4 kg of cocaine per day that flows down the river or 40,000 (!) doses per day based on a typical cocaine dose.

This year, Italian researches form the Institute for Atmospheric Pollution (IAP) theorized that if cocaine is in water, it could also be present in the air[2]. For example, cocaine seizures by the authorities and snorting can both release cocaine particles.

The group conducted a broad study of the composition of airborne particulates in Rome as well as the province of Taranto in southern Italy and the more remote location of Algiers.

Researches Angelo Cecinato and Catia Balducci from the IAP sampled inhalable air particles of diameter below 10 µm. The samples then undergone Soxhlet extraction followed by clean up on basic alumina column chromatography and analysis by Gas Chromatography Mass Spectrometry (GC/MS).

Cocaine was observed at detectable levels at all of the Roman locations including a university district, a city garden, a canyon street, a residential zone and a business district.

Airborne Cocaine Concentrations in Rome

  1. University District – 98 pg/m3
  2. City Garden – 70 pg/m3
  3. Residential & Business areas – 12-21 pg/m3

In Taranto, samples were collected at three sites with following cocaine concentrations:

  1. Downtown District – trace level
  2. Rural Area – below LOQ (the quantification limit)
  3. Residential Area – 10 pg/m3

The air particles collected around Algiers contained no cocaine above the detection limit.

Although the sources of cocaine in the air are not fully understood, the cocaine concentrations seemed to correlate with regional consumption of the drug in Rome and Taranto. By contrast, the concentrarion does not correlate with nicotine or caffeine, nor with benzo[a]pyrene.

1. “Cocaine in surface waters: a new evidence-based tool to monitor community drug abuse”

2. “Detection of cocaine in the airborne particles of the Italian cities Rome and Taranto”