Clinical & Experimental Allergy

Environmental risk factors and allergic bronchial asthma


Prof. Gennaro D'Amato, Division of Pneumology and Allergology, High Speciality Hospital ‘A.Cardarelli’ Napoli, Italy, Via Rione Sirignano, 10, 80121 Napoli, Italy.


The prevalence of allergic respiratory diseases such as bronchial asthma has increased in recent years, especially in industrialized countries. A change in the genetic predisposition is an unlikely cause of the increase in allergic diseases because genetic changes in a population require several generations. Consequently, this increase may be explained by changes in environmental factors, including indoor and outdoor air pollution. Over the past two decades, there has been increasing interest in studies of air pollution and its effects on human health. Although the role played by outdoor pollutants in allergic sensitization of the airways has yet to be clarified, a body of evidence suggests that urbanization, with its high levels of vehicle emissions, and a westernized lifestyle are linked to the rising frequency of respiratory allergic diseases observed in most industrialized countries, and there is considerable evidence that asthmatic persons are at increased risk of developing asthma exacerbations with exposure to ozone, nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide and inhalable particulate matter. However, it is not easy to evaluate the impact of air pollution on the timing of asthma exacerbations and on the prevalence of asthma in general. As concentrations of airborne allergens and air pollutants are frequently increased contemporaneously, an enhanced IgE-mediated response to aeroallergens and enhanced airway inflammation could account for the increasing frequency of allergic respiratory allergy and bronchial asthma. Pollinosis is frequently used to study the interrelationship between air pollution and respiratory allergy. Climatic factors (temperature, wind speed, humidity, thunderstorms, etc) can affect both components (biological and chemical) of this interaction. By attaching to the surface of pollen grains and of plant-derived particles of paucimicronic size, pollutants could modify not only the morphology of these antigen-carrying agents but also their allergenic potential. In addition, by inducing airway inflammation, which increases airway permeability, pollutants overcome the mucosal barrier and could be able to ‘prime’ allergen-induced responses. There are also observations that a thunderstorm occurring during pollen season can induce severe asthma attacks in pollinosis patients. After rupture by thunderstorm, pollen grains may release part of their cytoplasmic content, including inhalable, allergen-carrying paucimicronic particles.