Carbon in airway macrophages and lung function in children

N Engl J Med. 2006 Jul 6;355(1):21-30. doi: 10.1056/NEJMoa052972.


Background: Epidemiologic studies indirectly suggest that the inhalation of carbonaceous particulate matter impairs lung function in children. Using the carbon content of airway macrophages as a marker of individual exposure to particulate matter derived from fossil fuel, we sought direct evidence of this association.

Methods: Airway macrophages were obtained from healthy children through sputum induction, and the area of airway macrophages occupied by carbon was measured. Lung function was measured with the use of spirometry. We modeled the exposure to primary particulate matter (PM) that is less than 10 mum in aerodynamic diameter (PM10) at or near each child's home address. Linear regression was used to evaluate associations between carbon content of alveolar macrophages and variables that may affect individual exposure. To determine whether lung function that is reduced for other reasons is associated with an increase in the carbon content of airway macrophages, we also studied children with severe asthma.

Results: We were able to assess the carbon content of airway macrophages in 64 of 114 healthy children (56 percent). Each increase in primary PM10 of 1.0 microg per cubic meter was associated with an increase of 0.10 microm2 (95 percent confidence interval, 0.01 to 0.18) in the carbon content of airway macrophages, and each increase of 1.0 microm2 in carbon content was associated with a reduction of 17 percent (95 percent confidence interval, 5.6 to 28.4 percent) in forced expiratory volume in one second, of 12.9 percent (95 percent confidence interval, 0.9 to 24.8 percent) in forced vital capacity, and of 34.7 percent (95 percent confidence interval, 11.3 to 58.1 percent) in the forced expiratory flow between 25 and 75 percent of the forced vital capacity. The carbon content of airway macrophages was lower in children with asthma than in healthy children.

Conclusions: There is a dose-dependent inverse association between the carbon content of airway macrophages and lung function in children. We found no evidence that reduced lung function itself causes an increase in carbon content.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Air Pollutants / adverse effects
  • Air Pollutants / analysis*
  • Asthma / pathology
  • Asthma / physiopathology
  • Carbon / adverse effects
  • Carbon / analysis*
  • Child
  • Dose-Response Relationship, Drug
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Linear Models
  • Macrophages, Alveolar / chemistry*
  • Male
  • Pulmonary Ventilation / drug effects*
  • Sputum / chemistry
  • Vital Capacity / drug effects


  • Air Pollutants
  • Carbon