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Recent Advances in Chest Medicine |

Air Pollution ExposureAir Pollution and Interstitial Lung Disease: A Novel Environmental Risk Factor for Interstitial Lung Disease? FREE TO VIEW

Kerri A. Johannson, MD; John R. Balmes, MD, FCCP; Harold R. Collard, MD, FCCP
Author and Funding Information

From the Department of Medicine (Drs Johannson, Balmes, and Collard), University of California, San Francisco, San Francisco, CA; Division of Environmental Health Sciences (Drs Johannson and Balmes), School of Public Health, University of California, Berkeley, Berkeley, CA; and Department of Medicine (Dr Johannson), University of Calgary, Calgary, AB, Canada.

CORRESPONDENCE TO: Kerri A. Johannson, MD, University of Calgary, 4448 Front St SE, Calgary, AB, T3M-1M4, Canada; e-mail: kerri.johannson@albertahealthservices.ca


FUNDING/SUPPORT: Dr Johannson was supported by the GlaxoSmithKline/University of Calgary Advanced Fellowship in Respirology.

Reproduction of this article is prohibited without written permission from the American College of Chest Physicians. See online for more details.


Chest. 2015;147(4):1161-1167. doi:10.1378/chest.14-1299
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Air pollution exposure is a well-established risk factor for several adverse respiratory outcomes, including airways diseases and lung cancer. Few studies have investigated the relationship between air pollution and interstitial lung disease (ILD) despite many forms of ILD arising from environmental exposures. There are potential mechanisms by which air pollution could cause, exacerbate, or accelerate the progression of certain forms of ILD via pulmonary and systemic inflammation as well as oxidative stress. This article will review the current epidemiologic and translational data supporting the plausibility of this relationship and propose a new conceptual framework for characterizing novel environmental risk factors for these forms of lung disease.

Figures in this Article

The interstitial lung diseases (ILDs) comprise a diverse group of entities primarily characterized by the proliferation and thickening of the pulmonary interstitium. Despite a wide range of etiologic processes, many share a common phenotype of irreversible lung fibrosis that, in some patients, leads to progressive hypoxemia, respiratory failure, and death. Inhaled environmental causes have been identified in several well-described forms of ILD, including hypersensitivity pneumonitis, asbestosis, and silicosis.

Ambient air pollution has received relatively little attention in the field of ILD but is known to contribute to a range of pulmonary and systemic diseases. Air pollution exposure is increasingly implicated in adverse health outcomes, including asthma, COPD, cardiovascular disease, and, most recently, lung cancer. We believe that a plausible argument can be made for a relationship between ambient air pollution and ILD. This article reviews the current clinical and biologic evidence linking air pollution exposure to the development and progression of ILD and proposes a new way of conceptualizing cumulative environmental risk factors in this patient population.

Ambient air pollution includes chemical, biologic, and particulate materials released into the atmosphere. Of the six criteria air pollutants regulated by the US Environmental Protection Agency (particulate matter [PM], ozone [O3], nitrogen dioxide [NO2], sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, and lead), PM, ground-level O3, and NO2 have been most strongly associated with adverse respiratory outcomes.

PM is a uniquely complex mixture that may include solid particles, liquids, and vapors. Sources of PM include geologic sources (eg, sand, salt), metals, and fossil fuel combustion (eg, diesel exhaust particles, black carbon). PM is typically defined by size, such as PM ≤ 10 μm, ≤ 2.5 μm, or ≤ 0.1 μm in aerodynamic diameter (PM10, PM2.5, and PM0.1, respectively), or more qualitatively as coarse, fine, and ultrafine. However, its toxicity varies depending on factors like particle weight and composition, as well as host factors determining the location and density of deposition in the respiratory tract.1 PM toxicity can be further enhanced by exposure to other pollutants like NO2 and O3, with which it is frequently accompanied. PM exerts its effects directly from deposition in the respiratory tract and indirectly from triggering a local inflammatory response that can spread to the systemic circulation.

NO2 is emitted whenever fossil fuels are combusted. It is a good marker of traffic-related air pollution and is an indicator for the larger group of nitrogen oxides (NOx). NOx combine with other compounds such as ammonia and moisture to form small particles capable of penetrating deep into the lung. Exposure to NO2 induces a proinflammatory response in bronchial epithelial cells and can alter the distribution of leukocyte subsets in both blood and bronchoalveolar fluid.24 NO2 also reacts with volatile organic compounds, heat, and ultraviolet radiation to produce ground-level O3.

Trophospheric O3 exists within 10 km of the Earth’s surface and is photochemically produced through the reactions of sunlight with other pollutants like volatile organic compounds and NOx. In both human and animal studies, O3 has been found to induce airway hyperreactivity and airway inflammation, as well as to modify the cell-surface phenotypic expression of immunoregulatory proteins.58

Air pollution exposure has been linked extensively to respiratory-related morbidity, particularly with respect to airways disease. Increased exposure levels have been associated with poorly controlled asthma,9,10 asthma hospitalizations,11 impaired lung function growth,12 COPD incidence,13 and COPD exacerbations.14 Proximity to a major road, as a proxy of traffic-related air pollution, was associated with elevated pulmonary and systemic markers of inflammation and an increased risk of bronchiolitis obliterans syndrome and death in a cohort of patients who had undergone lung transplantation.15 Additionally, air pollution has been identified as a risk factor for pulmonary exacerbations in cystic fibrosis.1618 A large retrospective analysis identified an increased risk of respiratory-related mortality associated with elevations in chronic O3 exposure.19 Using individualized exposure estimates, NO2 exposure has been associated with an increased risk of death from lung cancer.20 Other population-based studies have demonstrated improved health outcomes subsequent to reduced air pollution levels, ranging from incident COPD to greater life expectancy.21,22

There has been a paucity of studies investigating air pollution and ILD despite many ILDs arising from inhalational exposures. Asbestosis and other pneumoconioses, hypersensitivity pneumonitis, chronic beryllium disease, and the smoking-related ILDs are all clearly linked to inhalational exposure to environmental agents. These agents range from toxic particulates and noxious gases to organic antigens, all of which are potentially modifiable in the patient’s environment. Idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF) has been associated with industrial and production-based jobs as well as occupational metal and wood dust exposures, and it has been proposed that the male predominance of disease is attributable to the sex distribution in these occupations. The most well-established environmental risk factor for IPF is cigarette smoking, with smokers more likely to develop disease.23 In a susceptible patient with underlying cumulative stress to the alveolar epithelium, cigarette smoking may accelerate fibrogenesis in the IPF lung via oxidative stress and other profibrotic signals inducing cellular senescence.2426 Additionally, the age-related predominance of IPF suggests a cumulative, time-dependent risk, consistent with a dose-response relationship. The biologic and chemical agents discussed share similarities to the ambient air pollutants. Like the antigens known to cause hypersensitivity pneumonitis, organic components of PM may trigger abnormal immune responses leading to inflammation, epithelial damage, and over time, fibrosis. Cigarette smoking exposes the lung to particulates of varying size and to volatile organic compounds, both components of air pollution.

There is a small but growing body of evidence investigating the relationship between air pollution exposure and the development or exacerbation of ILD. A study of asymptomatic children in Mexico found significantly higher rates of abnormal chest radiographic and spirometric findings in those with higher PM2.5 and O3 exposures.27 The abnormalities were mainly hyperinflation but also included reticular interstitial markings, with a subset of children demonstrating evidence of air trapping (suggestive of bronchiolitis) and subpleural nodularity on high-resolution CT scans of the chest. However, these data lack both accompanying pathology and longitudinal data describing the natural history of these radiographic changes. In a study of 325 patients with IPF, ambient air pollution was found to modify longitudinal changes in lung function, and the effect differed between pollutants. This suggests that pollutants may differentially alter the immunomodulatory pathways associated with this disease, but these data are preliminary and not peer reviewed.28 One study of a well-defined cohort of patients with IPF found O3 and NO2 exposure to be associated with an increased risk of acute exacerbation, a clinically meaningful event associated with high mortality.29 This is the first study to describe acute clinical outcomes in patients with ILD relative to air pollution exposure, and the findings warrant further prospective investigation. Studies of large, retrospective, epidemiologic populations are needed to identify variation in disease prevalence across different exposure levels. Prospective longitudinal cohort studies might best address this question but are limited by the relative rarity of ILD as well as the unknown potential latency period between exposure and incidence.

There are plausible mechanisms by which air pollution may cause or exacerbate ILD (Table 1). Early animal studies demonstrated that chronic and subchronic exposure to high O3 levels in monkeys and rats was associated with irreversible increases in collagen deposition.30,31 Rats exposed to moderately high O3 concentrations showed epithelial lesions with increased DNA synthesis in bronchiolar and type 2 epithelial cells shortly after exposure.32 The same study showed that coexposure to mixtures of urban dust and O3 potentiates the effect of O3 near the alveolar duct, leading to the accumulation of interstitial inflammatory cells. It has been proposed that particle deposition at a time of epithelial injury could allow particles or cytokines access to the pulmonary interstitium due to the loss of epithelial integrity.33

Table Graphic Jump Location
TABLE 1 ]  Air Pollution Exposures Associated With Mechanistic Pathways Involved in the Development of Interstitial Lung Disease

PM2.5 = particulate matter < 2.5 μm in aerodynamic diameter; PM10 = particulate matter < 10 μm in aerodynamic diameter.

In humans, controlled exposure chamber studies have demonstrated that short-term air pollution exposure (some at levels below current regulatory standards) induce both local pulmonary and systemic inflammation in healthy volunteers, based on BAL and serologic markers, respectively.3,4,34,35 Epidemiologic studies of short-term air pollution exposures have also consistently demonstrated relationships with both airway and systemic inflammation in healthy individuals.3638 Whether longer-term exposures result in fibrosis in humans remains unknown.

Ambient air pollution causes oxidative stress via the production of excess reactive oxygen species (ROS) such as hydroxide radical and superoxide anion.3739 Intrinsic antioxidants are generally capable of counterbalancing the effects of ROS, but when the production of ROS exceeds the body’s ability to remove them, cellular damage ensues. Patients with IPF have evidence of reduced antioxidant capacity, suggesting they may have increased vulnerability to excess ROS caused by exposure to air pollution.40 Despite this, there is no evidence that antioxidant therapies such as N-acetylcysteine are beneficial in ILD. A randomized clinical trial in IPF failed to identify a benefit of N-acetylcysteine in halting disease progression.41 Whether there is benefit in other forms of ILD or whether antioxidant therapy could be preventive has yet to be determined.

Telomeres (noncoding regions of DNA that protect against the loss of genetic information during subsequent cycles of replication) and telomerase are particularly vulnerable to the effects of oxidative stress.39 Telomere length has been found to vary in response to the duration of air pollution exposures, with short-term exposures associated with longer telomeres and cumulative exposures associated with shortened telomeres.42 These data suggest that telomeres are capable of temporary adaptation in response to toxic environmental stimuli, but that eventually, they are exhausted by chronic exposures. Several studies have demonstrated abnormally shortened telomeres in certain forms of ILD, particularly IPF.43,44 In the majority of cases, no genetic explanation for shortened telomeres can be found, suggesting that an environmental mechanism may be responsible for telomere shortening.

A study of human bronchial epithelial cells exposed to diesel exhaust particles demonstrated the upregulation of proteins associated with epithelial-mesenchymal transition, one proposed mechanism of IPF.45 Transforming growth factor-β (TGF-β) mediates fibrogenesis and is an important therapeutic target in IPF. In animal models, motorcycle exhaust induces cardiac fibrosis via upregulated TGF-β1 protein, while urban PM and diesel exhaust upregulate TGF-β1 and procollagen gene expression in rat tracheal explants.46,47 In human lung fibroblasts, the TGF-β signaling pathway is deregulated in a dose-dependent manner by exposure to extractable organic matter from ambient air pollution.48 This occurs via both up- and downregulation of specific genes responsible for TGF-β signaling, highlighting the complex relationship between the exposure and downstream protein activity. Taken together, these data provide biologic plausibility that air pollution could be associated with the development, progression, or exacerbation of ILD via mechanisms of oxidative stress, dysregulated fibrogenesis, and/or inflammation (Fig 1).

Figure Jump LinkFigure 1 –  Proposed relationship between air pollution exposure and interstitial lung disease. Proposed mechanisms by which air pollution exposure could trigger the development of ILD in a genetically susceptible individual. Via oxidative stress, inflammation, and telomere shortening, air pollution may also result in acute exacerbation and/or disease progression in an individual with established ILD. ILD = interstitial lung disease.Grahic Jump Location

It is important to note that ILD is an umbrella term for a diverse and heterogeneous group of disorders for which there are numerous pathophysiologic mechanisms. For convenience, they have been lumped together, as it is beyond the scope of this article to address the relationship of each disease with air pollution. The pleiotropic effects of air pollution may impact each disease differently at different stages of severity. Additionally, individual genetic or epigenetic factors may impact the phenotypic expression of ILD resulting from environmental exposures, and future research is necessary to delineate these pathobiologic mechanisms.

We believe a comprehensive assessment of environmental risk factors (termed the “exposome”) must be undertaken to fully delineate the contribution of ambient air pollution (and other exposures) to the complex pathobiology of pulmonary fibrosis. This global approach has been pioneered in cancer research and could be applied to the study of ILD.

The concept of the exposome was initially proposed as a framework to complement the genome, accounting for an individual’s nongenetic/environmental risk factors for malignancy.49 It has since been refined and applied more broadly to environmental epidemiology and exposure assessment in the context of other disease processes, including type 2 diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, and addiction.5054 The exposome characterizes all cellular processes in a framework where the “environment” can be conceptualized as the individual’s internal environment and “exposures” include all biologically active chemicals within this internal environment.54 Such processes range from toxic ingestions to epigenetic methylation to the physiologic effects of neighborhood socioeconomic status, all of which are relevant to an individual’s health status. In its ideal form, the exposome accounts for a lifetime of exposures from the prenatal period through to death. Since actual measurement of exposures over a lifetime is impossible, constructing an exposome relies primarily upon the use of validated biomarkers of cumulative exposure to specific agents. Defining the exposome in patients with pulmonary fibrosis would require the identification and repeated measurement of exposure biomarkers in large population-based prospective cohorts. Several exposure-related biomarkers have been identified, paving the way for further characterization of the exposome in this population. Though not specific for air pollution exposure, biomarkers with the potential for future clinical application include exhaled nitric oxide, micronuclei frequency in buccal mucosa cells, microRNA in induced sputum samples, malondialdehyde in exhaled breath condensate, and serum IL-6 levels.37,5558

Of the ILDs, IPF, in particular, is age-related, raising the possibility that lifetime cumulative environmental exposures may relate to the advanced cellular senescence seen in this disease.23,59 Comprehensively characterizing the environmental contributors to fibrogenesis (either directly or through gene and environment interactions) may be an essential step in understanding the complex pathobiology of IPF. While the potential environmental risk factors for ILD are many, air pollution exposure assessment provides a logical starting point for scientific investigation. Whether it is causally involved in the pathogenesis or exacerbates or accelerates already established disease, this ubiquitous exposure is readily quantifiable and will be useful in establishing a framework for environmental risk assessment in future studies of ILD. Identifying a potentially modifiable risk factor for IPF and other ILDs could result in significant public health and individual patient benefits.

Clinical and Public Health Implications

There are potential clinical and public health implications of identifying a relationship between air pollution exposure and ILD. In many regions of the world, air quality guidelines or standards have been established to protect the public health, particularly those at highest risk of adverse health impacts of exposure. At-risk populations typically include people with asthma, children, the elderly, and those with other chronic lung and heart conditions.60 Evidence-based management approaches for such patients include recommendations to minimize exposures and avoid strenuous activity during bad-air-quality days.61 No such recommendations currently exist for patients living with chronic ILD, although arguments presented herein suggest potential benefit. Additionally, for diseases with few effective treatments, environmental mitigation is a relatively cost-effective, easily implemented management strategy. General recommendations, such as avoiding strenuous activity during bad-air-quality days or wearing face masks to protect against particulates, would be prudent, though not evidence based at this point. Further research should be conducted before uniformly recommending air filters or purifiers or even residential relocation, as these may introduce undue cost to the patient in the absence of supportive data.

Ambient air pollution is a well-established risk factor for the development and worsening of many forms of pulmonary disease, and based on our evidence, we propose it may have an important role in the ILDs, particularly IPF. While definitive evidence is lacking, translational and epidemiologic data support the plausibility of a contributory relationship. The exposome may be a useful research concept, promoting characterization of the cumulative environmental exposures and their contribution to disease etiology and progression. Once identified, these environmental risk factors can be mitigated, leading to improved health outcomes in patients with interstitial lung disease.

Financial/nonfinancial disclosures: The authors have reported to CHEST the following conflicts of interest: Dr Johannson reports travel support from InterMune Inc. Dr Collard reports personal fees from Bayer AG, Biogen Idec Inc, FibroGen Inc, Gilead Sciences Inc, InterMune Inc, Mesoblast Ltd, Moerae Matrix Inc, Pfizer Inc, Promedior Inc, Takeda Pharmaceutical Co Ltd, and grants from Boehringer-Ingelheim GmbH, Genentech Inc, National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, and the University of California, San Francisco. Dr Balmes has reported that no potential conflicts of interest exist with any companies/organizations whose products or services may be discussed in this article.

Role of sponsors: The sponsor had no role in the design of the study, the collection and analysis of the data, or the preparation of the manuscript.

ILD

interstitial lung disease

IPF

idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis

NO2

nitrogen dioxide

NOx

nitrogen oxides

O3

ozone

PM

particulate matter

ROS

reactive oxygen species

TGF-β

transforming growth factor-β

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Fry RC, Rager JE, Bauer R, et al. Air toxics and epigenetic effects: ozone altered microRNAs in the sputum of human subjects. Am J Physiol Lung Cell Mol Physiol. 2014;306(12):L1129-L1137. [CrossRef] [PubMed]
 
Gong J, Zhu T, Kipen H, et al. Malondialdehyde in exhaled breath condensate and urine as a biomarker of air pollution induced oxidative stress. J Expo Sci Environ Epidemiol. 2013;23(3):322-327. [CrossRef] [PubMed]
 
Ceretti E, Feretti D, Viola GC, et al. DNA damage in buccal mucosa cells of pre-school children exposed to high levels of urban air pollutants. PLoS ONE. 2014;9(5):e96524. [CrossRef] [PubMed]
 
Berhane K, Zhang Y, Salam MT, et al. Longitudinal effects of air pollution on exhaled nitric oxide: the Children’s Health Study. Occup Environ Med. 2014;71(7):507-513. [CrossRef] [PubMed]
 
Fell CD, Martinez FJ, Liu LX, et al. Clinical predictors of a diagnosis of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. Am J Respir Crit Care Med. 2010;181(8):832-837. [CrossRef] [PubMed]
 
Technology Transfer Network. National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS). US Environmental Protection Agency website. http://www.epa.gov/ttn/naaqs/. Published 2013. Accessed July 29, 2014.
 
Global strategy for asthma management and prevention. GINA website. http://www.ginasthma.org/. Published 2014. Accessed July 29, 2014.
 

Figures

Figure Jump LinkFigure 1 –  Proposed relationship between air pollution exposure and interstitial lung disease. Proposed mechanisms by which air pollution exposure could trigger the development of ILD in a genetically susceptible individual. Via oxidative stress, inflammation, and telomere shortening, air pollution may also result in acute exacerbation and/or disease progression in an individual with established ILD. ILD = interstitial lung disease.Grahic Jump Location

Tables

Table Graphic Jump Location
TABLE 1 ]  Air Pollution Exposures Associated With Mechanistic Pathways Involved in the Development of Interstitial Lung Disease

PM2.5 = particulate matter < 2.5 μm in aerodynamic diameter; PM10 = particulate matter < 10 μm in aerodynamic diameter.

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Gong J, Zhu T, Kipen H, et al. Malondialdehyde in exhaled breath condensate and urine as a biomarker of air pollution induced oxidative stress. J Expo Sci Environ Epidemiol. 2013;23(3):322-327. [CrossRef] [PubMed]
 
Ceretti E, Feretti D, Viola GC, et al. DNA damage in buccal mucosa cells of pre-school children exposed to high levels of urban air pollutants. PLoS ONE. 2014;9(5):e96524. [CrossRef] [PubMed]
 
Berhane K, Zhang Y, Salam MT, et al. Longitudinal effects of air pollution on exhaled nitric oxide: the Children’s Health Study. Occup Environ Med. 2014;71(7):507-513. [CrossRef] [PubMed]
 
Fell CD, Martinez FJ, Liu LX, et al. Clinical predictors of a diagnosis of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. Am J Respir Crit Care Med. 2010;181(8):832-837. [CrossRef] [PubMed]
 
Technology Transfer Network. National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS). US Environmental Protection Agency website. http://www.epa.gov/ttn/naaqs/. Published 2013. Accessed July 29, 2014.
 
Global strategy for asthma management and prevention. GINA website. http://www.ginasthma.org/. Published 2014. Accessed July 29, 2014.
 
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