Eur Rev Med Pharmacol Sci 2010; 14 (10): 809-821

Air pollution ultrafine particles: toxicity beyond the lung

C. Terzano, F. Di Stefano, V. Conti, E. Graziani, A. Petroianni

Department of Cardiovascular and Respiratory Sciences, Respiratory Diseases Unit, Sapienza University of Rome, Fondazione E. Lorillard Spencer Cenci, Rome (Italy)

Background: Ultrafine particles or nanoparticles (UFPs or PM0.1) are the fraction of ambient particulates with an aerodynamic diameter smaller than 0.1 μm.
Currently UFPs are emerging as the most abundant particulate pollutants in urban and industrial areas, as their exposures have increased dramatically because of anthropogenic sources such as internal combustion engines, power plants, incinerators and many other sources of thermo-degradation.
Ultrafine particles have been less studied than PM2.5 and PM10 particulates, mass concentrations of particles smaller than 2.5 and 10 μm, respectively.

Objective, Evidence and Information Sources: We examined the current scientific literature about the health effects of ultrafine particles exposure.
State of the Art: UFPs are able to inhibit phagocytosis, and to stimulate inflammatory responses, damaging epithelial cells and potentially gaining access to the interstitium. They could be responsible for consistent reductions in forced expiratory volume in 1 second (FEV1) and forced vital capacity (FVC) in patients with asthma. Chronic exposure to UFPs can produce deleterious effects on the lung, also causing oxidative stress and enhancing pro-inflammatory effects in airways of COPD patients.
Cardiovascular detrimental consequences due to UFPs exposure have observed in epidemiological studies, and could likely be explained by translocation of UFPs from the respiratory epithelium towards circulation and subsequent toxicity to vascular endothelium; alteration of blood coagulation; triggering of autonomic nervous system reflexes eventually altering the cardiac frequency and function.
Once deposited deeply into the lung, UFPs – in contrast to larger-sized particles – appear to access to the blood circulation by different transfer routes and mechanisms, resulting in distribution throughout the body, including the brain, with potential neurotoxic consequences.

Perspectives and Conclusions. UFPs represent an area of toxicology of emerging concern. A new concept of environmental medicine would help in understanding not only the environmental mechanisms of disease, but also in developing specific preventive or therapeutic strategies for minimizing the dangerous influence of pollution on health.

Corresponding Author: Claudio Terzano, MD; e-mail:

To cite this article

C. Terzano, F. Di Stefano, V. Conti, E. Graziani, A. Petroianni
Air pollution ultrafine particles: toxicity beyond the lung

Eur Rev Med Pharmacol Sci
Year: 2010
Vol. 14 - N. 10
Pages: 809-821