Black carbon content in airway macrophages is associated with increased severe exacerbations and worse COPD morbidity in SPIROMICS

Respir Res. 2022 Nov 14;23(1):310. doi: 10.1186/s12931-022-02225-0.


Background: Airway macrophages (AM), crucial for the immune response in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), are exposed to environmental particulate matter (PM), which they retain in their cytoplasm as black carbon (BC). However, whether AM BC accurately reflects environmental PM2.5 exposure, and can serve as a biomarker of COPD outcomes, is unknown.

Methods: We analyzed induced sputum from participants at 7 of 12 sites SPIROMICS sites for AM BC content, which we related to exposures and to lung function and respiratory outcomes. Models were adjusted for batch (first vs. second), age, race (white vs. non-white), income (<$35,000, $35,000~$74,999, ≥$75,000, decline to answer), BMI, and use of long-acting beta-agonist/long-acting muscarinic antagonists, with sensitivity analysis performed with inclusion of urinary cotinine and lung function as covariates.

Results: Of 324 participants, 143 were current smokers and 201 had spirometric-confirmed COPD. Modeled indoor fine (< 2.5 μm in aerodynamic diameter) particulate matter (PM2.5) and urinary cotinine were associated with higher AM BC. Other assessed indoor and ambient pollutant exposures were not associated with higher AM BC. Higher AM BC was associated with worse lung function and odds of severe exacerbation, as well as worse functional status, respiratory symptoms and quality of life.

Conclusion: Indoor PM2.5 and cigarette smoke exposure may lead to increased AM BC deposition. Black carbon content in AMs is associated with worse COPD morbidity in current and former smokers, which remained after sensitivity analysis adjusting for cigarette smoke burden. Airway macrophage BC, which may alter macrophage function, could serve as a predictor of experiencing worse respiratory symptoms and impaired lung function.

Keywords: Black carbon; COPD; Macrophage.

MeSH terms

  • Air Pollutants* / adverse effects
  • Air Pollutants* / analysis
  • Carbon
  • Cotinine
  • Humans
  • Macrophages
  • Morbidity
  • Particulate Matter / adverse effects
  • Particulate Matter / analysis
  • Pulmonary Disease, Chronic Obstructive* / complications
  • Pulmonary Disease, Chronic Obstructive* / diagnosis
  • Pulmonary Disease, Chronic Obstructive* / epidemiology
  • Quality of Life
  • Soot / adverse effects
  • Soot / analysis


  • Cotinine
  • Soot
  • Particulate Matter
  • Carbon
  • Air Pollutants