Environmental urban factors (air pollution and allergens) and the rising trends in allergic respiratory diseases


Gennaro D'Amato MD
Division of Pneumology and Allergology
Hospital A. Cardarelli
10, Via Rione Sirignano
I-80121 Naples


Respiratory allergic diseases such as rhinitis and bronchial asthma appear to be increasing worldwide, affecting in particular subjects living in urban areas, and the reasons for this increase are still largely unknown. Although the role played by air pollution has yet to be clarified, a body of evidence suggests that urbanization, with its high levels of vehicle emissions and a westernised lifestyle are linked to the rising frequency of these diseases observed in most industrialized countries. Laboratory studies confirm the epidemiological evidence that inhalation of some pollutants, either individually or in combination, adversely affect lung function in asthmatics. Air pollutants may not only increase the frequency and intensity of symptoms in already allergic patients but may promote airway sensitization to airborne allergens in predisposed subjects. By attaching to the surface of pollen grains and of plant-derived paucimicronic particles, pollutants can modify the morphology of these antigen-carrying agents and alter their allergenic potential. In addition, by inducing airway inflammation, pollutants may overcome the mucosal barrier and so ‘prime’ allergen-induced responses. In other words airway mucosal damage and impaired mucociliary clearance induced by air pollution may facilitate the access of inhaled allergens to the cells of the immune system.