Along the Texas-Mexico border, the prevalence of neural tube defects (NTDs) among Mexican-American women doubled during 1990-1991. The human outbreak began during the same crop year as epizootics attributed to exposure to fumonisin, a mycotoxin that often contaminates corn. Because Mexican Americans in Texas consume large quantities of corn, primarily in the form of tortillas, they may be exposed to high levels of fumonisins. We examined whether or not maternal exposure to fumonisins increases the risk of NTDs in offspring using a population-based case-control study. We estimated fumonisin exposure from a postpartum sphinganine:sphingosine (sa:so) ratio, a biomarker for fumonisin exposure measured in maternal serum, and from maternal recall of periconceptional corn tortilla intake. After adjusting for confounders, moderate (301-400) compared with low (< or = 100) consumption of tortillas during the first trimester was associated with increased odds ratios (ORs) of having an NTD-affected pregnancy (OR = 2.4; 95% confidence interval, 1.1-5.3). No increased risks were observed at intakes higher than 400 tortillas (OR = 0.8 for 401-800, OR = 1.0 for > 800). Based on the postpartum sa:so ratio, increasing levels of fumonisin exposure were associated with increasing ORs for NTD occurrences, except for the highest exposure category (sa:so > 0.35). Our findings suggest that fumonisin exposure increases the risk of NTD, proportionate to dose, up to a threshold level, at which point fetal death may be more likely to occur. These results also call for population studies that can more directly measure individual fumonisin intakes and assess effects on the developing embryo.