High Pesticide Exposure Events and Olfactory Impairment among U.S. Farmers

Environ Health Perspect. 2019 Jan;127(1):17005. doi: 10.1289/EHP3713.


Background: Olfactory impairment (OI) is common among older adults and independently predicts all-cause mortality and the risk of several major neurodegenerative diseases. Pesticide exposure may impair olfaction, but empirical evidence is lacking.

Objective: We aimed to examine high pesticide exposure events (HPEEs) in relation to self-reported OI in participants in the Agricultural Health Study (AHS).

Methods: We conducted multivariable logistic regression to examine the associations between HPEEs reported at enrollment (1993–1997) and self-reported OI at the latest AHS follow-up (2013–2015) among 11,232 farmers, using farmers without HPEEs as the reference or unexposed group.

Results: A total of 1,186 (10.6%) farmers reported OI. A history of HPEEs reported at enrollment was associated with a higher likelihood of reporting OI two decades later {odds ratio [Formula: see text] [95% confidence interval (CI): 1.28, 1.73]}. In the analyses on the HPEE involving the highest exposure, the association appears to be stronger when there was a [Formula: see text] delay between HPEE and washing with soap and water [e.g., [Formula: see text] (95% CI: 1.48, 2.89) for 4-6 h vs. [Formula: see text] (95% CI: 1.11, 1.75) for [Formula: see text]]. Further, significant associations were observed both for HPEEs involving the respiratory or digestive tract [[Formula: see text] (95% CI: 1.22, 1.92)] and dermal contact [[Formula: see text] (95% CI: 1.22, 1.78)]. Finally, we found significant associations with several specific pesticides involved in the highest exposed HPEEs, including two organochlorine insecticides (DDT and lindane) and four herbicides (alachlor, metolachlor, 2,4-D, and pendimethalin). HPEEs that occurred after enrollment were also associated with OI development.

Conclusions: HPEEs may cause long-lasting olfactory deficit. Future studies should confirm these findings with objectively assessed OI and also investigate potential mechanisms. https://doi.org/10.1289/EHP3713.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Intramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Cohort Studies
  • Farmers*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Iowa / epidemiology
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • North Carolina / epidemiology
  • Occupational Exposure / adverse effects*
  • Olfaction Disorders / epidemiology*
  • Pesticides / adverse effects*
  • Surveys and Questionnaires


  • Pesticides