Third-hand threats: Nicotine and nitrosamines found in dust in homes of smokers and non-smokers

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  • Published: Dec 29, 2011
  • Author: Steve Down
  • Channels: Gas Chromatography
thumbnail image: Third-hand threats: Nicotine and nitrosamines found in dust in homes of smokers and non-smokers

Dusty danger

While some of you may have been tidying your homes in readiness for visitors over the festive season, there are more reasons for using dusters and the vacuum cleaner than simply to avoid the embarrassment of a dusty house. For house dust harbours dangerous contaminants to which we can be exposed by inhalation and ingestion.

Unlike outdoor dust, the indoor variety is persistent and more likely to be around for a longer period, extending the risk of exposure to those indoors. Recent research has found that the indoor dust is probably the major human exposure route for the fire retardant polybrominated diphenyl ethers but many other toxic compounds have been identified, including phthalates, pesticides, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and polychlorinated biphenyls.

These indoor pollutants can originate from external sources such as fuel fumes and agricultural chemicals, or internal environments like furniture or electronic devices. Another key indoor polluter is tobacco smoke. It contains nicotine and tobacco-specific nitrosamines (TSNAs), which are the major carcinogenic compounds in tobacco smoke.

Nicotine becomes deposited on indoor surfaces where it can remain for a long time, reacting with airborne chemicals such as ozone or nitrogen oxides to produce more TSNAs by a secondary route. When their low volatility is taken into account, these compounds can persist for weeks or even months, representing a long-term health hazard. Other types of volatile N-nitrosamines are also produced by the combustion of tobacco smoke.

Whereas second-hand smoke is a well-known risk for non-smokers, especially indoors, a lesser known route is third-hand smoke, represented by the contamination of surfaces and dust by smoke residues. However, although nicotine has been detected in dust, there have been no reports of TSNAs and volatile nitrosamines, according to a team of European researchers.

Rosa Marce and colleagues from the University Rovira i Virgili, Tarragona, Spain, and the University of York, UK, have now undertaken a gas chromatographic study to correct this anomaly, targeting nicotine and a series of nitrosamines in house dust.

2D Dust discovery

Dust was collected from the homes of smokers and non-smokers using vacuum cleaners and the compounds were isolated by pressurised liquid extraction. The optimum performance was achieved using silica as adsorbent in an extraction cell containing diatomaceous earth, with ethyl acetate as the extractant.

The extract was analysed initially by GC/MS with electron ionisation, using a mid-polarity column coated with 50% diphenyl-50% dimethylpolysiloxane. Under selected ion monitoring, low selectivity was achieved so Marce turned to two-dimensional GC with a nitrogen chemiluminescence detector to boost the performance.

The extracts were separated on a non-polar 5% phenyl polysilphenylene siloxane column followed by a 50% phenyl polysilphenylene siloxane column and the eluted fractions were pyrolysed for chemiluminscence detection.

The dual column system produced detection and quantitation limits in the ranges 1.7-7.3 and 7.2-31.5 pg, respectively, with recoveries of more than 80% for most of the analytes. Only the more volatile nitrosamines gave poorer recoveries, presumably due to evaporative losses during analysis.

Nicotine, five TSNAs and nine volatile N-nitrosamines were analysed, including the known carcinogens N'-nitrosonornicotine (NNN), 4-(methylnitrosamino)-1-(3-pyridyl)-1-butanone (NNK) and several nitrosoalkylamines.

Nitrosamines in house dust

More than 60 organo-nitrogen compounds were detected in the chromatograms and were identified from their retention times. The excellent resolution afforded by the combination of the two columns ensured very little overlap with only two compounds, N-nitrosopyrrolidine and N-nitrosomorpholine, quantified together due to their similar retention times.

All 15 target compounds were detected in some of the dust samples. The total average levels of the compounds in dust from smoking homes were about three-fold higher than those from non-smoking homes at 26.3 and 9.6 µg/g, respectively.

Nicotine was the most abundant compound by far in smoking home dust and one of the more abundant in non-smoker dust, where the major compound was N-nitrosodiphenylamine. Other abundant volatile nitrosamines were N-nitrosomethylethylamine and N-nitrosodiethylamine.

Of the TSNAs, NNK and N'-nitrosoanatabine were the most abundant. The NNK degradation product 4-(methylnitrosamino)-1-(3-pyridyl)-1-butanol was observed in three non-smoking dust samples and did not correlate with the NNK levels.

The distributions of the nitrosamines could easily be affected by the factors such as the influx of outdoor pollution or by the presence of smoking visitors to non-smoking households, so the absolute values must be regarded with caution.

Nevertheless, the novel GC x GC method with nitrogen chemiluminescence detection will allow more detailed studies to be undertaken so that indoor exposure to the carcinogenic nitrosamines from dust can be assessed and monitored.


The views represented in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of John Wiley and Sons, Ltd.


Volatile nitrosamines originating from tobacco smoke have been determined for the first time in the dust from smoking and non-smoking homes, revealing an exposure risk from dust inhalation or ingestion

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