Epidemiologic studies have reported that Asian sand dust (ASD) particles can affect respiratory health; however, the mechanisms remain unclear. We investigated the effects of ASD on airway epithelial cells and immune cells, and their contributing factors to the effects. Human airway epithelial cells were exposed to ASD collected on 1–3 May (ASD1) and on 12–14 May (ASD2) 2011 in Japan and heat-treated ASD1 for excluding heat-sensitive substances (H-ASD) at a concentration of 0, 3, 30 or 90 µg ml–1 for 4 or 24 h. Furthermore, bone marrow-derived dendritic cells (BMDC) from atopic prone mice were differentiated by culture with granulocyte-macrophage colony-stimulating factor (GM-CSF) then these BMDC were exposed to the ASD for 24 h. Also splenocytes as mixture of immune cells were exposed to the ASD for 72 h. All ASD dose dependently reduced viability of airway epithelial cells. Non-heated ASD showed a dose-dependent increase in the protein release of interleukin (IL)-6 and IL-8. The raises induced by ASD1 were higher than those by ASD2. ASD1 and ASD2 also elevated ICAM-1 at the levels of mRNA, cell surface protein and soluble protein in culture medium. In contrast, H-ASD did not change most of these biomarkers. Non-heated ASD showed enhancement in the protein expression of DEC205 on BMDC and in the proliferation of splenocytes, whereas H-ASD did not. These results suggest that ASD affect airway epithelial cells and immune cells such as BMDC and splenocytes. Moreover, the difference in ASD events and components adhered to ASD can contribute to the health effects. Copyright © 2013 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.