Background: Exposure to fine ambient particulate matter (PM) has consistently been associated with increased morbidity and mortality. The relationship between exposure to ultrafine particles (UFP) and health effects is less firmly established. If UFP cause health effects independently from coarser fractions, this could affect health impact assessment of air pollution, which would possibly lead to alternative policy options to be considered to reduce the disease burden of PM. Therefore, we organized an expert elicitation workshop to assess the evidence for a causal relationship between exposure to UFP and health endpoints.
Methods: An expert elicitation on the health effects of ambient ultrafine particle exposure was carried out, focusing on: 1) the likelihood of causal relationships with key health endpoints, and 2) the likelihood of potential causal pathways for cardiac events. Based on a systematic peernomination procedure, fourteen European experts (epidemiologists, toxicologists and clinicians) were selected, of whom twelve attended. They were provided with a briefing book containing key literature. After a group discussion, individual expert judgments in the form of ratings of the likelihood of causal relationships and pathways were obtained using a confidence scheme adapted from the one used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Results: The likelihood of an independent causal relationship between increased short-term UFP exposure and increased all-cause mortality, hospital admissions for cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, aggravation of asthma symptoms and lung function decrements was rated medium to high by most experts. The likelihood for long-term UFP exposure to be causally related to all cause mortality, cardiovascular and respiratory morbidity and lung cancer was rated slightly lower, mostly medium. The experts rated the likelihood of each of the six identified possible causal pathways separately. Out of these six, the highest likelihood was rated for the pathway involving respiratory inflammation and subsequent thrombotic effects.
Conclusion: The overall medium to high likelihood rating of causality of health effects of UFP exposure and the high likelihood rating of at least one of the proposed causal mechanisms explaining associations between UFP and cardiac events, stresses the importance of considering UFP in future health impact assessments of (transport-related) air pollution, and the need for further research on UFP exposure and health effects.