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Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg. 1996 Feb;114(2):232-8.

Airborne pollutants and the immune system.

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  • 1Division of Allergy, Immunology and Transplantation, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, MD 20892, USA.


The effects of airborne pollutants on the immune system have been most widely studied in the respiratory tract. Entry may occur as a volatile gas (ozone, benzene), as liquid droplets (sulfuric acid, nitrogen dioxide), or as particulate matter (diesel exhaust, aromatic hydrocarbons). The subsequent interaction with the immune system may result in local and systemic responses, and studies have shown examples of disease occurring from both overactive immune responses and immunosuppression. For the most part, airborne pollutants (small molecular weight chemicals) have to be coupled with other substances (proteins or conjugates) before they can be recognized by the immune system and exert their effects. Fortunately, this encounter rarely causes immunologically mediated human disorders. The following briefly reviews some of the disorders that may occur. Immunologically nonspecific inflammation of the lung can occur after inhalation of ozone in anyone given sufficient dose and time of exposure. Immunologically specific cell-mediated (T lymphocyte) reactions appear to predominate in chronic beryllium disease, which results in a granulomatous form of lung disease. Beryllium alone does not appear to be antigenic but requires chemical linkage with a larger molecule. Mercury-induced autoimmune disease (immune system attacks self-antigens) affecting kidneys and lungs has been demonstrated in animal models (changes similar to those seen in people with Goodpasture's syndrome). Immunosuppression can be demonstrated after exposure to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin). Hypersensitivity (or allergic) reactions can occur after exposure to toluene diisocyanate (occupational asthma). In summary, airborne pollutants may cause a wide spectrum of immunologically mediated disorders. There is clearly an underlying genetic basis for the susceptibility to immunologic disease resulting from exposure to pollutants, but knowledge in this area is rudimentary at present. Studies have been impeded by lack of appropriate in vitro models, as well as difficulties in identifying the biologically active substance.

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