Sickness response symptoms among healthy volunteers after controlled exposures to diesel exhaust and psychological stress

Robert J. Laumbach, Howard M. Kipen, Kathie Kelly-Mcneil, Junfeng Zhang, Lin Zhang, Paul J. Lioy, Pamela Ohman-Strickland, Jing Gong, Alexander Kusnecov, Nancy Fiedler

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

9 Scopus citations


Background: Interactions between acute exposures to environmental chemical contaminants and psychological stress may be important in situations where they are likely to co-occur, ranging in intensity from daily urban living to participation in war. Modification of symptomatic responses by stress may play a role in medically unexplained symptoms attributed to low-level chemical exposures. Objectives: We hypothesized that the combination of exposure to diesel exhaust (DE) and acute psychological stress would cause sickness responses in healthy volunteers. Moreover, these responses would be greater in individuals with self-reported prior chemical odor intolerance. Methods: One hundred adult subjects underwent 1-hr exposures to diluted DE and clean air control. Half of the subjects performed a public-speaking stressor task during the exposures. Subjects completed questionnaires to determine their Chemical Odor Intolerance Index score. Plasma cortisol, end-tidal carbon dioxide, and the severity of 35 symptoms were measured at time points before and after the exposures. Results: Subjects exposed to DE demonstrated small but statistically significant increases in severity for several symptom categories, including sickness response and upper respiratory, central nervous system, and total symptoms. The psychological stressor did not increase symptom severity independently or via interaction with DE. Subjects with prior self-reported chemical intolerance had more severe sickness response symptoms from DE. Conclusions: These results suggest that exposure to DE can cause acute sickness response symptoms and that these symptoms are also associated with increased levels of self-reported chemical intolerance. The results did not confirm our hypothesis that an acute stressor would increase sickness response symptom severity during the exposure.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)945-950
Number of pages6
JournalEnvironmental health perspectives
Issue number7
StatePublished - Jul 2011

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health
  • Health, Toxicology and Mutagenesis


  • Diesel exhaust
  • Gulf war illness
  • Psychological stress
  • Sickness response
  • Symptoms

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