Autoimmune diseases (AID) are a collection of many complex disorders of unknown etiology resulting in immune responses to self-antigens and are thought to result from interactions between genetic and environmental factors. Here we review the epidemiologic evidence for the role of environmental factors in the development of human AID, the conclusions that can be drawn from the existing data, critical knowledge gaps, and research needed to fill these gaps and to resolve uncertainties. We specifically summarize the state of knowledge and our levels of confidence in the role of specific agents in the development of autoimmune diseases, and we define the areas of greatest impact for future investigations. Among our consensus findings we are confident that: 1) crystalline silica exposure can contribute to the development of several AID; 2) solvent exposure can contribute to the development of systemic sclerosis; 3) smoking can contribute to the development of seropositive rheumatoid arthritis; and 4) an inverse association exists between ultraviolet radiation exposure and the risk of development of multiple sclerosis. We suggest that more studies of phenotypes, genotypes, and multiple exposures are needed. Additional knowledge gaps needing investigation include: defining important windows in the timing of exposures and latencies relating to age, developmental state, and hormonal changes; understanding dose-response relationships; and elucidating mechanisms for disease development. Addressing these essential issues will require more resources to support research, particularly of rare AID, but knowledge of the risks conferred by environmental factors in specific genetic contexts could pave the way for prevention of AID in the future.
Copyright © 2012. Published by Elsevier Ltd.