BACKGROUND: Recent studies have suggested that air pollutants resulting from vehicle exhaust emissions and burning of fossil fuels, either in combination or individually, may enhance the airway response of asthmatic subjects to inhaled allergen. It was hypothesised that the airway response to inhaled allergen after exposure to a combination of 400 ppb nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and 200 ppb sulphur dioxide (SO2) is increased 24-48 hours after exposure. METHODS: Thirteen mild atopic asthmatic volunteers were exposed for six hours to a single exposure of air and three exposures of the combination of 400 ppb NO2 + 200 ppb SO2 in randomised order, and then challenged with increasing concentrations of Dermatophagoides pteronyssinus allergen either immediately after exposure to air, or immediately, 24 hours or 48 hours after exposure to the combination of the two pollutants, until a 20% fall in forced expiratory volume in one second (FEV1) was recorded. RESULTS: Exposure to 400 ppb NO2 + 200 ppb SO2 significantly decreased the dose of D pteronyssinus allergen required to produce a 20% fall in FEV1 (PD20FEV1) at all times after exposure when compared with air. The mean percentage changes in allergen PD20FEV1 immediately, 24 hours, and 48 hours after exposure to 400 ppb NO2 + 200 ppb SO2 were -37% (95% confidence intervals (CI) -50 to -23), -63% (CI -75 to -51), and -49% (CI -75 to -28.8), respectively, when compared with the PD20FEV1 after air exposure and were significant at all time points studied. The allergen PD20FEV1 at 24 hours after exposure to the combination of the two pollutants was also found to be significantly lower when compared with that immediately after exposure to the two pollutants. CONCLUSION: These results demonstrate that exposure to a combination of NO2 and SO2, at concentrations which can be encountered during episodes of increased outdoor and indoor air pollution, enhances the airway response to inhaled allergen in asthmatic subjects. This effect persists over a period of 24-48 hours and is maximal 24 hours after exposure to these air pollutants.
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