Friday, June 01, 2007

Is this the most pointless drug research ever?

This bizarre story popped up, uncritically reported on Reuters yesterday:

There's something in the air tonight: Cocaine

ROME (Reuters) - Scientists have discovered particles of cocaine and marijuana, as well as caffeine and tobacco, in the air of Italy's capital, they said on Thursday.

The concentration of drugs was heaviest in the air around Rome's Sapienza university, though the National Research Council's Dr. Angelo Cecinato warned against drawing conclusions about students' recreational habits.

Calling their study "the first in the world to show the presence of particles of cocaine suspended in the atmosphere of the city", the researchers said they took samples in Rome, the southern city of Taranto and in Algiers in North Africa.

Nicotine and caffeine were detected in all three, "showing how widespread consumption of these substances is and how they remain in the atmosphere", state-funded CNR said in a statement.

The concentration of cocaine in Rome's atmosphere was only 0.1 nanogrammes (1 nanogramme is one billionth of a gramme) per cubic metre at its height during winter months, the researchers said. But the conclusions were worrying for public health.

"It is well documented that even small concentrations in the air of these pollutants can seriously damage health," said Dr. Ivo Allegrini of the CNR's Institute for Atmospheric Pollution.


approx .01 gram of cocaine visible in this photo

I have neither the time nor will to point out the multiple tiers of silliness in the above news item, except to reassure potential visitors to the great city of Rome, even if they should have the misfortune of straying within the vicinity of students, that one ten-billionth of a gram per cubic meter of cocaine, marijuana, tobacco, or caffeine (or even, heaven forfend, as a cocktail) shouldn't fill them with panic.

Assuming that one active dose of cocaine is about 100mg (consumed in one go), then at 0.1ng per cubic metre that means one dose in 10^12 cubic metres, i.e. a cube of air 10km each side.
So, that's roughly the amount of air you'd breathe in 2 billion, billion, billion, billion, billion (2x10^15) breaths*. Or, put another way, normal breathing for somewhere in the region of two hundred million years (+ or - a few million years, depending on age/body weight/lung capacity etc).

Just think, if you had a list of other contents of that cubic meter, measured in ten-billionths of a gram , well you'd..

...nope. I just can't be bothered.

(photo by stuck in customs)

* thanks to Andrew Taylor


Deano said...

Stupid news item maybe - but you're rather quick to condemn a piece of research as 'pointless on that basis..

Anonymous said...

well, what is it's point?

Steve Rolles said...

its really just a variation of the 'we found cocaine on the toilets in ******* (insert shocking location: police statio/school/convent/etc)' school of crap journalism. If this is some revolutionary sniffing device fine, i want to hear about it, but they talk about some essentially meaningless results - people take drugs shock - then try to concoct a scare from it, where there clearly is none.

Deano said...

This was a serious piece of research published in a peer-reviewed journal.

You may not feel it suits your campaign to have scientists intruding into the field - but I'm afraid you're rather too quick to condemn.

The journos who got hold of this may seem to be concocting a 'scare' - but I'm afraid you don't seem to have a better grasp of the subject than they do.

Steve Rolles said...

serious and peer reviewed doesnt mean it has a point. What possible utility for the research is there? a user survey will tell you lot more about drug use than something like this. dont be daft.

there is the clear implication in the story that they have
1. discovered something new or interesting, (eg - students use drugs sometimes)
2. exposed a potential health threat

neither of which are the case.

Anonymous said...

I suspect this was part of a programme to monitor atmospheric pollutants in order to comply with EU regulations on airborne particles; so that's the point. The published findings look like cherry picked data, (admittedly by the scientists concerned)and are in themselves pretty meaningless but it doesn't mean that their activity, (ie improvement in pollution monitoring systems)is also pointless.

Steve Rolles said...

fine about pollution monitoring, but they suggest that this research has wider implications re drug policy and public helath, which is doesnt. The reporting has alot to answer for.

Anonymous said...

It wasnt this part of the research which is found interesting, I'm inclined to agree it doesnt really tell us anything.

They also found that about 2kg of cocaine washes out of Rome in the Polka (is that its name?) river every week. Surely that shows that the 'drug war' is failing pretty badly.