Cancer incidence among pesticide applicators exposed to permethrin in the Agricultural Health Study

Environ Health Perspect. 2009 Apr;117(4):581-6. doi: 10.1289/ehp.11318. Epub 2008 Nov 10.


Background: Permethrin is a synthetic pyrethroid insecticide widely used in agriculture, in public health, and in many U.S. homes and gardens.

Objective: In this study we evaluated the incidence of cancer among pesticide applicators exposed to permethrin in the Agricultural Health Study (AHS).

Methods: A total of 49,093 pesticide applicators were included in this analysis of the AHS, a prospective cohort study of licensed pesticide applicators in Iowa and North Carolina. Detailed information on pesticide exposure and lifestyle factors was obtained from self-administered questionnaires completed in 1993-1997. Average length of follow-up since applicator enrollment in the cohort was 9.14 years. We used two permethrin exposure metrics: a) lifetime days applicators personally mixed or applied permethrin and b) intensity-weighted lifetime days (lifetime days weighted by estimated intensity of exposure). We used Poisson regression analysis to estimate relative risks (RRs) and 95% confidence intervals (CIs) for malignancies by tertiles of exposure.

Results: We found no associations between permethrin and all malignant neoplasms combined, or between permethrin and melanoma, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, leukemia, or cancers of the colon, rectum, lung, or prostate. We found elevated and statistically significant risks for multiple myeloma in the highest tertiles of both lifetime exposure-days (RR = 5.72; 95% CI, 2.76-11.87) and intensity-weighted lifetime exposure-days (RR = 5.01; 95% CI, 2.41-10.42), compared with applicators reporting they never used permethrin; these results are based on only 15 exposed cases. These findings were similar across a variety of alternative exposure metrics, exposure categories, and reference groups.

Conclusions: This study found no association with most cancers analyzed. Although the suggested association with multiple myeloma was based on a small number of cases, it warrants further evaluation.

Keywords: agriculture; cancer; multiple myeloma; occupation; permethrin; pesticide applicator; pesticides; pyrethroid.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Intramural

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Incidence
  • Insecticides*
  • Iowa / epidemiology
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Neoplasms / epidemiology*
  • North Carolina / epidemiology
  • Occupational Exposure* / statistics & numerical data
  • Permethrin*


  • Insecticides
  • Permethrin