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Toxicol Appl Pharmacol. 2002 Feb 1;178(3):144-54.

The surface charge of visible particulate matter predicts biological activation in human bronchial epithelial cells.

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  • 1National Health and Environmental Effects Research Laboratory, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Research Triangle Park, North Carolina 27711, USA.


The physicochemical complexity of airborne particulate matter (PM) has hampered identifying a specific mechanism(s) for its toxicity. In this study, selected physicochemical characteristics (i.e., size, particle number, acidity, and surface charge) were measured on various field PM, derived from urban ambient (St. Louis, Ottawa, Canada), residential (Woodstove), volcanic dust from Mt. St. Helen (MSH), and industrial [oil fly ash (OFA) coal fly ash (CFA)] sources. Morphometric analysis of visible (< or = 2.0 to >10 microm) field particles indicated that the industrial PM (OFA, CFA) had the smallest diameter and lowest total number of particles per weight while Woodstove and Ottawa had the largest diameter and highest number of particles. All PM lowered the pH of an unbuffered 10 mM NaCl solution from pH 7.4 to pH 4.7-6.8 but did not change the neutral pH of the cell culture medium, keratinocyte growth media (KGM). The surface charge (i.e., zeta potential) of microscopically visible (> or = 2.0 microm) field particles, suspended in either a Hepes-buffered KCl solution or in KGM, was measured by microelectrophoresis. In KCl solution, the mean zeta potential of all tested PM ranged from -36 +/- 2 (Woodstove) to -27 +/- 4.3 mV (MSH). When measured in KGM medium, the mean zeta potential value of each PM was significantly less (p > 0.001) than those measured in KCl solution, with values ranging from -17 +/- 0.3 mV (St. Louis) to -9 +/- 0.6 mV (MSH). Suspensions of field PM, its soluble and washed particulate fractions, were next prepared from each PM. The biological effects (i.e., increases in intracellular calcium ([Ca2+]i), cytokine release) of their exposure were measured in human, immortalized, tracheal-bronchial epithelial cells (BEAS-2B). Exposure of BEAS-2B cells to each fraction produced an immediate, but differential increase in [Ca2+]i and the subsequent release of the inflammatory cytokine IL-6, 4 and 16 h later. Increases in [Ca2+]i by field PM significantly correlated with the IL-6 released by each fraction (r2 > or = 0.76) after both 4 and 16 h exposures. The biological effects of each PM were compared with their physicochemical characteristics. No correlation was found between increases in [Ca2+]i or cytokine release and a PM's acidity or the number or size of its visible (> or = 2.0 microm) particles. However, the surface charge of PM field particles, when measured in the KGM exposure medium, showed a high correlation (r2 > or = 0.94) with the IL-6 release by field PM after both 4 and 16 h exposure. Increases in [Ca2+]i also correlated (r2 = 0.85) with the surface charge of PM field particles when measured in KGM. These data indicate that the surface charge (i.e., zeta potential) carried on PM's visible field particles predicts their differential release of the inflammatory cytokine IL-6 in cultures of human respiratory epithelial cells.

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