The main task of the immune system is to protect the body against invading pathogens. To be able to do so, immune cells must be able to recognize and combat exogenous challenges and at the same time tolerate body-borne structures. A complex regulatory network controls the sensitive balance between defense and tolerance. Perturbation of this network ultimately leads to the development of chronic inflammation, such as allergies, autoimmune reactions, and infections, because the immune system is no longer able to efficiently eliminate invading pathogens. Environmental pollutants can cause such perturbations by affecting the function of immune cells in such a way that they would react hypersensitively against allergens and the body's own structures, respectively, or that they would be no longer able to adequately combat pathogens. This indirect effect is also known as adjuvant effect. For pesticides, heavy metals, wood preservatives, or volatile organic compounds such adjuvant effects are well known. Examples of the mechanism by which environmental toxins contribute to chronic inflammatory diseases are manifold and will be discussed along asthma and allergies.While the immune system of healthy adults is typically well able to distinguish between foreign and endogenous substances even under adverse environmental conditions, that of children would react much more sensible upon comparable environmental challenges. To prevent priming for diseases by environmental cues during that highly sensitive period of early childhood children are to be particularly protected.
Keywords: Adjuvant effects; Environmental pollutants; Immune system; Sensitive time window; Volatile organic compounds VOC.