Organophosphate Pesticide Exposure and Neurobehavioral Performance in Agricultural and Non-Agricultural Hispanic Workers

Joan Rothlein; Diane Rohlman; Michael Lasarev; Jackie Phillips; Juan Muniz; Linda McCauley


Environ Health Perspect. 2006;114(5):691-696. 

In This Article

Abstract and Introduction

Our understanding of the health risks of farmworkers exposed to pesticides in their work and home environments is rapidly increasing, although studies designed to examine the possible neurobehavioral effects of low-level chronic pesticide exposure are limited. We measured dialkyl phosphate urinary metabolite levels, collected environmental dust samples from a subset of homes, obtained information on work practices, and conducted neurobehavioral tests on a sample of farmworkers in Oregon. Significant correlations between urinary methyl metabolite levels and total methyl organophosphate (azinphos-methyl, phosmet, malathion) house dust levels were observed. We found the neurobehavioral performance of Hispanic immigrant farmworkers to be lower than that observed in a nonagricultural Hispanic immigrant population, and within the sample of agricultural workers there was a positive correlation between urinary organophosphate metabolite levels and poorer performance on some neurobehavioral tests. These findings add to an increasing body of evidence of the association between low levels of pesticide exposure and deficits in neurobehavioral performance.

In recent years, there has been increasing concern regarding the widespread use of pesticides in agricultural communities and potential impacts on public health. In the 1990s in the United States, some 2.5-5.0 million agricultural workers were exposed to organophosphate insecticides (Das et al. 2001). Scientific field investigations have focused on delineating the extent of exposure and potential health effects in agricultural and nonagricultural communities. Detectable levels of pesticides have been reported in home dust, primarily in families residing in agricultural areas (Bradman et al. 1997; McCauley et al. 2001; Quandt et al. 2004; Simcox et al. 1995). Bradman et al. (1997) found that diazinon and chlorpyrifos concentrations in house dust tended to be higher among farmworkers than among nonfarmworkers. Others have reported higher levels of pesticides in house dust in homes that are located closer to fields (Quandt et al. 2004) and in housing with larger numbers of farmworkers (Azaroff 1999; Lu et al. 2000; McCauley et al. 2001). After-work hygiene practices, such as leaving work boots outside and changing promptly from work clothes, have also been found to affect pesticide levels in the homes of farmworkers (McCauley et al. 2003).

Studies have also documented the presence of biologic markers of pesticide exposure in adults and children in agricultural communities (Arcury and Quandt 2003; Azaroff 1999; Loewenherz et al. 1997; O'Rourke et al. 2000) and differences among levels of exposure in residents of agriculture and nonagricultural communities. Although the association between acute exposure to pesticides and neurotoxic effects is well known (Lotti 2000), the potential effects of chronic low-level exposure are less well established (Alavanja et al. 2004).

Neurobehavioral (NB) test batteries have frequently been used to examine NB effects of acute pesticide exposure in adult working populations. Individuals with histories of toxic exposures to organophosphates have shown a consistent pattern of deficits on measures of motor speed and coordination, sustained attention, and information processing speed (Reidy et al. 1992; Rosenstock et al. 1991; Savage et al. 1988; Steenland et al. 1994; Wesseling et al. 2002). Fewer studies have examined the effect of long-term, low-level exposure to pesticides on nervous system functioning, but NB changes have been reported in sheep farmers (Stephens et al. 1995), greenhouse workers (Bazylewicz-Walczak et al. 1999), tree fruit workers (Fiedler et al. 1997), and farmworkers in Florida (Kamel et al. 2003). These studies have found deficits in measures of sustained attention, information processing, and motor speed and coordination. An examination of a group of cotton pesticides applicators in Egypt presumed to have high exposures, found a broad range of deficits, including visual motor speed, verbal abstraction, attention, and memory (Farahat et al. 2003).

Although these studies represent increasing knowledge regarding the association between pesticide exposure and neurologic health end points, few studies have reported the association between environmental exposures, biomarkers of exposure, and neurologic performance. We conducted an investigation of migrant farmworkers in Oregon and included measures of environmental exposure, biomarkers of exposure, and NB performance.

In this study, we hypothesized that a) significant correlations would be found between the amount of organophosphate residues in house dust and the levels of organophosphate metabolites in urine of adult farmworkers living in an agricultural community; b) the NB performance of Hispanic immigrant farmworkers exposed to organophosphates would be lower than that observed in a nonagricultural Hispanic immigrant population when controlled for demographic factors such as age and education; and c) within the agricultural workers, there would be a positive correlation between urinary organophosphate metabolite levels and poorer NB performance.


Comments on Medscape are moderated and should be professional in tone and on topic. You must declare any conflicts of interest related to your comments and responses. Please see our Commenting Guide for further information. We reserve the right to remove posts at our sole discretion.
Post as: