The hapten–atopy hypothesis III: the potential role of airborne chemicals

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Summary

One explanation for the large increase in the prevalence of atopic disease in developed countries during the last 50 years is the ‘hygiene hypothesis’. This proposes that a reduced exposure to pathogenic microorganisms at a key period(s) during development results in the maintenance or acquisition of an atopic phenotype. Alternatively, or additionally, we have postulated that increased exposure to chemicals generally, and to irritant/haptenic chemicals in particular, during critical windows of maternal pregnancy/early life have also contributed to changes in the prevalence of atopic disease. Having previously reviewed the potential roles of oral and cutaneous exposure to chemicals on the subsequent diagnosis of atopic disease, we here consider possible evidence of a role for exposure to airborne chemicals as a contributory factor in acquired susceptibility to atopic allergy. After controlling for known confounders, five specific maternal occupations during pregnancy have been implicated as being associated with subsequent atopic disease in the offspring. Each of these occupations is characterized by high and persistent exposure to airborne chemicals. High-level exposure to volatile organic compounds in the domestic environment, either during pregnancy or in early life, is also associated with development of childhood atopic disease. Similarly, sustained exposure to airborne chlorinated chemicals from swimming pools during childhood has been associated with the development of atopic allergy. A possible immunological basis for these associations is that exposure to certain airborne chemicals, even at low levels, can result in the delivery of ‘danger’ signals that, in turn, bias the immune response towards the selective induction or maintenance of preferential T helper 2-type immune responses consistent with the acquisition of allergic sensitization.

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