Occupational exposures and autoimmune diseases

Int Immunopharmacol. 2002 Feb;2(2-3):303-13. doi: 10.1016/s1567-5769(01)00181-3.


Autoimmune diseases are pathologic conditions defined by abnormal autoimmune responses and characterized by immune system reactivity in the form of autoantibodies and T cell responses to self-structures. Here we review the limited but growing epidemiologic and experimental literature pertaining to the association between autoimmune diseases and occupational exposure to silica, solvents, pesticides, and ultraviolet radiation. The strongest associations (i.e., relative risks of 3.0 and higher) have been documented in investigations of silica dust and rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, scleroderma and glomerulonephritis. Weaker associations are seen, however, for solvent exposures (in scleroderma, undifferentiated connective tissue disease, and multiple sclerosis) and for farming or pesticide exposures (in rheumatoid arthritis). Experimental studies suggest two different effects of these exposures: an enhanced proinflammatory (TH1) response (e.g., TNF-alpha and IL-1 cytokine production with T cell activation), and increased apoptosis of lymphocytes leading to exposure to or modification of endogenous proteins and subsequent autoantibody formation. The former is a general mechanism that may be relevant across a spectrum of autoimmune diseases, whereas the latter may be a mechanism more specific to particular diseases (e.g., ultraviolet radiation, Ro autoantibodies, and lupus). Occupational exposures are important risk factors for some autoimmune diseases, but improved exposure assessment methods and better coordination between experimental/animal models and epidemiologic studies are needed to define these risks more precisely.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Autoimmune Diseases / chemically induced*
  • Autoimmune Diseases / immunology
  • Humans
  • Occupational Diseases / chemically induced*
  • Occupational Diseases / immunology*
  • Occupational Exposure / adverse effects*