Sea spray aerosols contain the major component of human lung surfactant

Emmanuel Van Acker*, Maarten De Rijcke, Zixia Liu, Jana Asselman, Karel A.C. De Schamphelaere, Lynn Vanhaecke, Colin R. Janssen

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Marine phytoplankton influence the composition of sea spray aerosols (SSAs) by releasing various compounds. The biogenic surfactant dipalmitoylphosphatidylcholine (DPPC) is known to accumulate in the sea surface microlayer, but its aerosolization has never been confirmed. We conducted a 1 year SSA sampling campaign at the Belgian coast and analyzed the SSA composition. We quantified DPPC at a median and maximum air concentration of 7.1 and 33 pg m–3, respectively. This discovery may be of great importance for the field linking ocean processes to human health as DPPC is the major component of human lung surfactant and is used as excipient in medical aerosol therapy. The natural airborne exposure to DPPC seems too low to induce direct human health effects but may facilitate the effects of other marine bioactive compounds. By analyzing various environmental variables in relation to the DPPC air concentration, using a generalized linear model, we established that wave height is a key environmental predictor and that it has an inverse relationship. We also demonstrated that DPPC content in SSAs is positively correlated with enriched aerosolization of Mg2+ and Ca2+. In conclusion, our findings are not only important from a human health perspective but they also advance our understanding of the production and composition of SSAs.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)15989–16000
Number of pages12
JournalEnvironmental Science and Technology
Issue number23
Early online date18 Nov 2021
Publication statusPublished - 07 Dec 2021


  • Environmental Chemistry
  • General Chemistry


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