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Health Effects of Bioaerosols

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Bioaerosols can produce a wide range of health effects. Recall from earlier that for a bioaerosol to be infectious (pathogenic), it must be viable. However, non-viable bioaersols can still cause allergies or toxic reactions. Allergy sufferers can be affected by airborne biological matter. People with compromised respiratory systems, such as those with asthma and emphysema, can suffer respiratory sensitization attacks caused by bioaerosols as well. As seen in Figure 7 below, the respiratory tract may contract (known as bronchiconstriction) in the presence of allergens or other irritants, making breathing difficult. Extreme health effects associated with bioaerosols involve epidemics or bioterrorism transmitted via the airborne route.

On a daily level, countless people are afflicted with allergies or respiratory sensitization reactions, such as asthma, caused by interactions with fungi, pollen, and dander. Allergies are estimated to cost our economy close to $7 billion annually.4 There are typically welfare effects associated with many of the health effects.

Figure 7: Nasal and respiratory reactions to allergies.

A good example of the effect that bioaersols can have on the respiratory system is the effects of the Red Tide Blooms in the Gulf Coast, which are large blooms of algae that are often dangerous to local aquatic life. These algae contain a toxin that is released when the cells are broken up by the energy associated with the waves. The toxins are released into the air as non-viable bioaerosols, causing extreme eye and respiratory irritation. This irritation is especially a concern for those with compromised respiratory systems.

The more extreme health effects include the resulting illnesses due to pathogenic bioaerosols. Sources of pathogenic bioaerosols include humans, animal houses, wastewater treatment plants, and biosolids storage units. Examples of pathogenic organisms that are transmitted through the airborne route and the resulting disease are listed in the following table. More details on pathogenic microorganisms and their transmission will be included in Section 6.

Table 1: Examples of Pathogenic Microorganisms and their Resulting Diseases

Approximate Size
Resulting Disease
Legionella pneumophila
0.6 micron5
Legionnaires' Disease
Mycobacterium tuberculosis
2-4 micron in length6
Bordetella pertussis
0.45 micron7
Whooping Cough
Yersinia pestis
2 micron in length8
Pneumonic Plaugue
Bacillus anthracis spore
1-3 micron9
Variola vera
200-300 nm10
Herpesvirida, HHV-3
100-200 nm10
Chickenpox and Shingles
Measles virus
125-250 nm10
Measles, Mumps, and Rubella
SARS coronavirus
80-160 nm10
Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS)

4Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America

5Brock Biology of Microorganisms, Madinga, Martinko, and Parker, 2003

7Lavigne et al, Microbes and Infection, 4:8, 2002, 815-820

9Spores, Folds, Glove Boxes and Mail Boxes

10Microbiology, Prescott, Harley, Klein, 2002