Plants are also second hand smokers

Tobacco smoke contains some 4,000 different gases, particles, chemicals and carcinogens including nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide and cyanide. Environmental Tobacco Smoke or passive smoke is a process which causes non-smokers to inhale tobacco smoke involuntarily, causing diseases, disability, and death. Along with human and animals plants are also badly affected by passive smoking.

A recent study conducted by the researches of the Technical University of Braunschweig, Germany shows that plants take up nicotine, found in tobacco, from contaminated soil and plumes of smoke.

As nicotine can function as a herbivore chemical, it was widely used as an insecticide in past, though it was banned by the European Union in 2009 because of its toxicity. However, high level of nicotine, a potent parasympathomimetic alkaloid, is detected in a large number of plant-derived products including spices, herbal teas and medicinal plants.

To rule out the possibility of illegal use of nicotine-containing insecticides, the team conducted a series of mulching and fumigation experiments in peppermint plants (Mentha x piperita), which contain traces of nicotine. They exposed the plants with cigarette tobacco smoke for more than 9 days and detected nicotine in remarkably high level, which is a few folds higher than maximum residue level set by the European authorities. The findings reveal, for the first time, that the reported high levels of nicotine surely originated from tobacco present in the environment.  The researchers also observed a drastic fall in nicotine concentration as time progressed, as the alkaloid is taken up by roots and metabolised in leaves.

The study is highly significant for food industry. Moreover the results have a great importance for basic science also: nicotine and similar alkaloids can be transferred from one plant, after its death, to another. Such “horizontal transfer of natural products” simplifies the unexplained success behind farming practices such as crop rotation and co-cultivation of certain vegetables.


Nicotine uptake by peppermint plants as a possible source of nicotine in plant-derived products,  Agronomy for Sustainable Development. Selmar, D. et al (2015). DOI 10.1007/s13593-015-0298-x

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Arunima Maiti

Arunima Maiti

Biomedical scientist with special interest in reproductive biology.

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