Epidemiologic evidence for asthma and exposure to air toxics: linkages between occupational, indoor, and community air pollution research

Environ Health Perspect. 2002 Aug;110 Suppl 4(Suppl 4):573-89. doi: 10.1289/ehp.02110s4573.


Outdoor ambient air pollutant exposures in communities are relevant to the acute exacerbation and possibly the onset of asthma. However, the complexity of pollutant mixtures and etiologic heterogeneity of asthma has made it difficult to identify causal components in those mixtures. Occupational exposures associated with asthma may yield clues to causal components in ambient air pollution because such exposures are often identifiable as single-chemical agents (e.g., metal compounds). However, translating occupational to community exposure-response relationships is limited. Of the air toxics found to cause occupational asthma, only formaldehyde has been frequently investigated in epidemiologic studies of allergic respiratory responses to indoor air, where general consistency can be shown despite lower ambient exposures. The specific volatile organic compounds (VOCs) identified in association with occupational asthma are generally not the same as those in studies showing respiratory effects of VOC mixtures on nonoccupational adult and pediatric asthma. In addition, experimental evidence indicates that airborne polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH) exposures linked to diesel exhaust particles (DEPs) have proinflammatory effects on airways, but there is insufficient supporting evidence from the occupational literature of effects of DEPs on asthma or lung function. In contrast, nonoccupational epidemiologic studies have frequently shown associations between allergic responses or asthma with exposures to ambient air pollutant mixtures with PAH components, including black smoke, high home or school traffic density (particularly truck traffic), and environmental tobacco smoke. Other particle-phase and gaseous co-pollutants are likely causal in these associations as well. Epidemiologic research on the relationship of both asthma onset and exacerbation to air pollution is needed to disentangle effects of air toxics from monitored criteria air pollutants such as particle mass. Community studies should focus on air toxics expected to have adverse respiratory effects based on biological mechanisms, particularly irritant and immunological pathways to asthma onset and exacerbation.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Air Pollutants / adverse effects*
  • Air Pollution, Indoor / adverse effects*
  • Asthma / epidemiology*
  • Asthma / etiology*
  • Epidemiologic Studies
  • Humans
  • Incidence
  • Occupational Exposure*
  • Organic Chemicals
  • Particle Size
  • Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons / adverse effects
  • Tobacco Smoke Pollution / adverse effects
  • Vehicle Emissions / adverse effects
  • Volatilization


  • Air Pollutants
  • Organic Chemicals
  • Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons
  • Tobacco Smoke Pollution
  • Vehicle Emissions