Many welders have experienced bronchitis, metal fume fever, lung function changes, and an increase in the incidence of lung infection. Questions remain unanswered regarding the causality and possible underlying mechanisms associated with the potential pulmonary effects of welding fume exposure. The objective was to assess the acute effect of stainless steel (SS) welding fume inhalation on lung injury, inflammation, and defense responses in rats. Male Sprague-Dawley rats were exposed to gas metal arc-SS welding fume at a concentration of 15 or 40 mg/m3 x 3 hr/day x 10 days. The control group was exposed to filtered air. To assess lung defense responses, some animals in each group were intratracheally inoculated with 5 x 103 Listeria monocytogenes one day after the last daily exposure. Welding particles were collected during exposure, and elemental composition and particle size were determined. After exposure, parameters of lung injury, (lactate dehydrogenase and albumin) and inflammation (PMN influx) were measured in the bronchoalveolar lavage fluid recovered from each animal. In addition, particle-induced effects on pulmonary clearance of bacteria and macrophage function were assessed. The welding particles were comprised of (from highest to lowest concentration) Fe, Cr, Mn, and Ni. Particle size distribution analysis indicated the mass median aerodynamic diameter to be 0.24 µm. Lactate dehydrogenase and albumin were significantly elevated (p<0.05) in the SS group at both doses compared to air controls. Interestingly, less than 10% of the cells recovered from the lungs of the SS group were PMNs. Lung bacteria clearance and macrophage production of reactive oxidants were significantly reduced (p<0.05) in the SS group. In summary, acute exposure of rats to SS welding fume caused significant lung damage, suppressed lung defense responses to bacterial infection, but had little effect on pulmonary inflammation. Additional chronic inhalation studies are needed to further examine the lung effects associated with SS welding fume exposure.
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