Usually when we talk about pollutants in the air, we’re discussing carbon dioxide, sulfur oxides and other contaminants. But air can hold a remarkable variety of substances.

Just this morning on our way to work we noticed a stream of folks splitting around an elderly woman, giving her a remarkably wide berth considering the size of the crowd. Upon seeing this, we thought, “And people say New Yorkers are rude! Look at how considerate everyone is of this woman.” Then we got a little closer and realized what was actually happening. Her perfume was so strong that nobody could stand to be within three feet of the woman, and the fragrance lingered in the air for a half-block.  

But Perfume Lady has got nothing on the residents of Rome when it comes to substances suspended in the air: Scientists who sampled the atmosphere there recently found traces of cocaine, marijuana, caffeine, and tobacco, according to a Reuter’s article.

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.

Some of you might not be surprised to learn that the highest concentration of drugs in the air was heaviest around Rome’s Sapienza University (though, according to the article, “the National Research Council's Dr. Angelo Cecinato warned against drawing conclusions about students' recreational habits”).

Were scientists to conduct a similar experiment in our neighborhood, we wouldn’t be surprised if they found a marijuana hot spot in the park nearby. We often catch a sweet, herby whiff when walking along the paths, and it sure as heck isn’t incense.

Story by Alisa Opar. This article originally appeared in Plenty in June 2007. The story was added to in July 2009.

Copyright Environ Press 2007.