Epidemiological studies of workers in wool textile mills have shown a direct relation between the concentration of wool dust in the air and respiratory symptoms. Injurious effects of wool dust on the bronchial epithelium could be important in causing inflammation and irritation. A pulmonary epithelial cell line in vitro was therefore used to study the toxic effects of wool dust. Cells of the A549 epithelial cell line were labelled with 51Cr and treated with whole wool dusts and extracts of wool, after which injury was assessed. Also, the effects of grain dust, which also causes a form of airway obstruction, were studied. The epithelial injury was assessed by measuring 51Cr release from cells as an indication of lysis, and by monitoring cells which had detached from the substratum. No significant injury to A549 cells was caused by culture with any of the dusts collected from the air but surface "ledge" dust caused significant lysis at some doses. Quartz, used as a toxic control dust, caused significant lysis at the highest concentration of 100 micrograms/well. To determine whether any injurious material was soluble the dusts were incubated in saline and extracts collected. No extracts caused significant injury to epithelial cells. A similar lack of toxicity was found when 51Cr labelled control alveolar macrophages were targets for injury. Significant release of radiolabel was evident when macrophages were exposed to quartz at concentrations of 10 and 20 micrograms/well, there being no significant injury with either wool or grain dusts. These data suggest that neither wool nor grain dust produce direct injury to epithelial cells, and further studies are necessary to explain inflammation leading to respiratory symptoms in wool and grain workers.
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