Airborne particulate matter and human health: toxicological assessment and importance of size and composition of particles for oxidative damage and carcinogenic mechanisms

J Environ Sci Health C Environ Carcinog Ecotoxicol Rev. 2008 Oct-Dec;26(4):339-62. doi: 10.1080/10590500802494538.


Air pollution has been considered a hazard to human health. In the past decades, many studies highlighted the role of ambient airborne particulate matter (PM) as an important environmental pollutant for many different cardiopulmonary diseases and lung cancer. Numerous epidemiological studies in the past 30 years found a strong exposure-response relationship between PM for short-term effects (premature mortality, hospital admissions) and long-term or cumulative health effects (morbidity, lung cancer, cardiovascular and cardiopulmonary diseases, etc). Current research on airborne particle-induced health effects investigates the critical characteristics of particulate matter that determine their biological effects. Several independent groups of investigators have shown that the size of the airborne particles and their surface area determine the potential to elicit inflammatory injury, oxidative damage, and other biological effects. These effects are stronger for fine and ultrafine particles because they can penetrate deeper into the airways of the respiratory tract and can reach the alveoli in which 50% are retained in the lung parenchyma. Composition of the PM varies greatly and depends on many factors. The major components of PM are transition metals, ions (sulfate, nitrate), organic compound, quinoid stable radicals of carbonaceous material, minerals, reactive gases, and materials of biologic origin. Results from toxicological research have shown that PM have several mechanisms of adverse cellular effects, such as cytotoxicity through oxidative stress mechanisms, oxygen-free radical-generating activity, DNA oxidative damage, mutagenicity, and stimulation of proinflammatory factors. In this review, the results of the most recent epidemiological and toxicological studies are summarized. In general, the evaluation of most of these studies shows that the smaller the size of PM the higher the toxicity through mechanisms of oxidative stress and inflammation. Some studies showed that the extractable organic compounds (a variety of chemicals with mutagenic and cytotoxic properties) contribute to various mechanisms of cytotoxicity; in addition, the water-soluble faction (mainly transition metals with redox potential) play an important role in the initiation of oxidative DNA damage and membrane lipid peroxidation. Associations between chemical compositions and particle toxicity tend to be stronger for the fine and ultrafine PM size fractions. Vehicular exhaust particles are found to be most responsible for small-sized airborne PM air pollution in urban areas. With these aspects in mind, future research should aim at establishing a cleared picture of the cytotoxic and carcinogenic mechanisms of PM in the lungs, as well as mechanisms of formation during internal engine combustion processes and other sources of airborne fine particles of air pollution.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Air Pollutants / chemistry
  • Air Pollutants / toxicity*
  • Carcinogenicity Tests
  • Carcinogens / chemistry
  • Carcinogens / toxicity*
  • Epidemiologic Studies
  • Humans
  • Mutagenicity Tests
  • Oxidative Stress / drug effects*
  • Particle Size


  • Air Pollutants
  • Carcinogens