Evidence of health impacts of sulfate- and nitrate-containing particles in ambient air

Richard Reiss, Elizabeth L. Anderson, Carroll E Cross, George Hidy, David Hoel, Roger McClellan, Suresh Moolgavkar

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

120 Scopus citations


Ambient particulate matter (PM) is a complex mixture of inorganic and organic compounds. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates PM as a criteria pollutant and promulgates National Ambient Air Quality Standards for it. The PM indicator is based on mass concentration, unspecified as to chemical composition, for specific size fractions. The numerical standards are based on epidemiologic evidence of associations between the various size-related particle mass concentrations as indicators and excess mortality and cardiorespiratory health effects as endpoints. The U.S. National Research Council has stated that more research is needed to differentiate the apparent health effects associated with different particle chemical constituents. Sulfate and nitrate constitute a significant portion of the particle mass in the atmosphere, but are accompanied by similar amounts of carbonaceous material, along with low concentrations of various species, including bioactive organic compounds and redox cycling metals. Extensive animal and human toxicology data show no significant effects for particles consisting only of sulfate and nitrate compounds at levels in excess of ambient air concentrations. A few epidemiologic studies, including both short-term time-series studies and long-term cohort studies, have included the sulfate content of PM as a specific variable in health effect analyses. There are much less data for nitrate. The results from the epidemiologic studies with PM sulfate are inconsistent. A detailed analysis of the time-series epidemiological studies shows that PM sulfate has a weaker "risk factor" than PM2.5 for health effects. Since sulfate is correlated with PM2.5, this result is inconsistent with sulfate having a strong health influence. However, there are many limitations with these types of studies that warrant caution for any comparison between a chemical component and mass concentration. In total, the epidemiologic and toxicologic evidence provide little or no support for a causal association of PM sulfate and health risk at ambient concentrations. For nitrate-containing PM, virtually no epidemiological data exist. Limited toxicological evidence does not support a causal association between particulate nitrate compounds and excess health risks. There are some possible indirect processes through which sulfate and nitrate in PM may affect health-related endpoints, including interactions with certain metal species and a linkage with production of secondary organic matter. There is insufficient evidence to include or exclude these processes as being potentially important to PM-associated health risk.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)419-449
Number of pages31
JournalInhalation Toxicology
Issue number5
StatePublished - Mar 2007

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Toxicology
  • Health, Toxicology and Mutagenesis


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