Air pollution can cause oxidative stress and adverse health effects such as asthma and other respiratory diseases, but the underlying chemical processes are not well characterized. Here we present chemical exposure-response relations between ambient concentrations of air pollutants and the production rates and concentrations of reactive oxygen species (ROS) in the epithelial lining fluid (ELF) of the human respiratory tract. In highly polluted environments, fine particulate matter (PM2.5) containing redox-active transition metals, quinones, and secondary organic aerosols can increase ROS concentrations in the ELF to levels characteristic for respiratory diseases. Ambient ozone readily saturates the ELF and can enhance oxidative stress by depleting antioxidants and surfactants. Chemical exposure-response relations provide a quantitative basis for assessing the relative importance of specific air pollutants in different regions of the world, showing that aerosol-induced epithelial ROS levels in polluted megacity air can be several orders of magnitude higher than in pristine rainforest air.
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