Do individuals with asthma experience airway hyper-responsiveness after exposure to nitrogen dioxide?
The current 100 ppb short-term National Ambient Air Quality Standard for NO2, and EPA's determination of a causal association for respiratory effects, are based in part on controlled human exposure studies evaluating airway hyper-responsiveness (AHR). A meta-analysis by Goodman et al. (2009) found increased AHR at 100 ppb NO2 but no clear concentration-response relationship up to 600 ppb, and an overall lack of an AHR effect for studies involving exercise or exposure to allergens. Several factors have been suggested to explain why effects on AHR are observed while people are at rest, but not during exercise or after exposure to allergens. These include an exercise-induced refractory period; partial reversal of bronchospasm from use of forced expiration maneuvers; and greater airway responsiveness of participants exposed to NO2 at rest. We reviewed the scientific evidence to determine whether there is biological support for these factors and found that none sufficiently explained the lack of an effect during exercise or after exposure to allergens. In the absence of either a consistent concentration-response or a plausible explanation for the paradoxical AHR findings, the biological significance of these findings is uncertain and provides equivocal support for NO2 as a causal factor of AHR at these exposure levels.