Elevated expression of AhR and NLRP3 link polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon exposure to cytokine storm in preschool children

Environ Int. 2020 Jun:139:105720. doi: 10.1016/j.envint.2020.105720. Epub 2020 Apr 11.


Background: Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), as a group of persistent organic pollutants, are linked to impaired immune function and low-grade inflammation in adults and children. However, the potential of PAHs to lead to a cytokine storm associated with AhR (aryl hydrocarbon receptor) and NLRP3 (NLR family pyrin domain containing 3) in humans has been poorly studied.

Objectives: We aimed to investigate the associations between PAH exposure, AhR and NLRP3 expression, and cytokines associated with a cytokine storm in healthy preschoolers.

Methods: Basic demographic surveys and physical examinations were conducted on 248 preschoolers from an electronic waste (e-waste) recycling area (Guiyu, n = 121) and a reference area (Haojiang, n = 127). Ten urinary PAH metabolite (OH-PAH) concentrations were measured. We also measured the expression levels of AhR and NLRP3 and seventeen serum cytokine levels.

Results: The concentrations of multiple OH-PAHs were significantly higher in the exposed group than those in the reference group, especially 1-hydroxynaphthalene (1-OH-Nap) and 2-hydroxynaphthalene (2-OH-Nap). PAH exposure was closely related to a child's living environment and hygiene habits. Expression levels of AhR and NLRP3 were significantly higher in the exposed group than in the reference group. Similarly, serum IL-1β, IL-4, IL-5, IL-10, IL-12p70, IL-13, IL-17A, IL-18, IL-22, IL-23, and IFN-γ levels were notably higher in the e-waste-exposed children than in the reference children. After adjusting for age, gender, BMI, family income, parental education level, and second-hand smoke exposure, we found that increased PAH exposure was associated with higher AhR and NLRP3 expression and elevated IL-4, IL-10, IL-12p70, IL-18, IL-22, IL-23, TNF-α, and IFN-γ levels. The associations between PAH exposure and IL-1β, IL-18, IFN-γ, and TNF-β were mediated by NLRP3 expression, and the relationships between PAH exposure and IL-4, IL-10, IL-12p70, IL-22, IL-23, and TNF-α were mediated by AhR expression.

Conclusions: Our findings suggest that the association between PAH exposure and a cytokine storm may be mediated by AhR and NLRP3 expression among preschoolers.

Keywords: Aryl hydrocarbon receptor; Cytokine storm; E-waste; NLRP3 inflammasome; Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon; Preschool children.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Basic Helix-Loop-Helix Transcription Factors / drug effects
  • Basic Helix-Loop-Helix Transcription Factors / metabolism
  • Child, Preschool
  • Cytokines
  • Electronic Waste* / analysis
  • Humans
  • NLR Family, Pyrin Domain-Containing 3 Protein
  • Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons* / analysis
  • Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons* / toxicity
  • Receptors, Aryl Hydrocarbon / drug effects
  • Receptors, Aryl Hydrocarbon / metabolism


  • AHR protein, human
  • Basic Helix-Loop-Helix Transcription Factors
  • Cytokines
  • NLR Family, Pyrin Domain-Containing 3 Protein
  • NLRP3 protein, human
  • Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons
  • Receptors, Aryl Hydrocarbon