Abstract In order to assess the adverse effects of urban levels of air pollution, rats were used as biological indicators in a chronic exposure experiment. Animals were housed for 6 months in the center of São Paulo (the largest South American town) and compared to controls kept for the same period in a clean area. Pollution levels were obtained from a state air pollution monitoring station, 200 m distant from exposure location, which provided the levels of CO, SO 2, particulates, and ozone. The nasal septum was submitted to quantitative analysis of morphological and histochemical parameters, comprising the measurement of volume of epithelium and lamina propria per unity of surface of basal lamina, the amount of mucus stored in the surface epithelium, the volume densities of neutral and acidic mucus in the lamina propria glands, and the densities of secretory and ciliated cells in the epithelium. The results obtained in the present investigation suggest that chronic exposure to urban levels of air pollution induces secretory hypertrophy, combined with a shift toward acidic mucus secretion and ciliary damage. The results are consistent with the idea that prolonged exposure to low levels of air pollution deteriorates respiratory defenses against infectious agents and may cause an increase in respiratory morbidity and perhaps mortality.