Identification of immunotoxic effects of chemicals and assessment of their relevance to man

Food Chem Toxicol. 1988 Jun;26(6):527-39. doi: 10.1016/0278-6915(88)90006-3.


Immunotoxicity is defined as the adverse effects of foreign substances (xenobiotics) on the immune system. Two types of effects are possible: immunosuppression (which may result in an increased susceptibility to infection or to the development of tumours) and immunopotentiation (which may manifest as an allergy or as autoimmunity). There is, as yet, little evidence that well controlled occupational exposure to industrial chemicals has led to clinically significant immunosuppression. In contrast, a number of industrial chemicals have been shown to cause immunopotentiation in exposed populations, producing occupational asthma and contact dermatitis and possibly autoimmunity. In experimental models, immunosuppression (usually assessed by in vivo or in vitro immune function tests) has been induced by a wide range of chemicals but there are a few reports of the immunosuppression leading directly to an increased susceptibility to infection or to the development of tumours. Predictive experimental models are available for type IV allergic reactions, but the identification of chemicals that have a potential to cause other types of allergy or autoimmune reactions requires further research and the development and validation of new animal models. It is considered that routine subacute and chronic toxicity studies should include a full gross and histopathological assessment of the lymphoid organs to more accurately detect the potential of a chemical to cause immunotoxicity. Should such studies indicate that a substance has affected the immune system directly, an assessment of overall immune competence and function tests may be necessary using dose levels below those which cause frank toxicity. However, precise interpretation of immune function tests in terms of their relevance to human health requires an improved understanding of the extent of the functional reserve of the immune system. A strategy for assessing immunotoxicity in exposed human populations demonstrates a need for reliable clinical assessment, accurate medical record-keeping, an environmental and biological monitoring for levels of contaminating chemicals and the judicious use of well-validated immune function tests.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Autoimmune Diseases / chemically induced*
  • Drug Hypersensitivity / etiology*
  • Food Additives / toxicity*
  • Hazardous Substances / toxicity*
  • Humans
  • Hypersensitivity, Delayed / chemically induced
  • Immune Tolerance / drug effects*
  • Immunologic Tests


  • Food Additives
  • Hazardous Substances