Pesticide exposures, cholinesterase depression, and symptoms among North Carolina migrant farmworkers

Am J Public Health. 1994 Mar;84(3):446-51. doi: 10.2105/ajph.84.3.446.


Objectives: We conducted a clinic-based study of erythrocyte cholinesterase levels, pesticide exposures, and health effects among farmworkers and nonfarmworkers to determine risks for exposure and associated morbidity.

Methods: Two hundred two farmworkers and 42 nonfarmworkers were recruited sequentially at two community health centers. Erythrocyte cholinesterase levels were measured colorimetrically. Questionnaires obtained data on demographics, occupational history, exposures, and symptoms.

Results: Cholinesterase levels were significantly lower among farmworkers (30.28 U/g hemoglobin) than among nonfarmworkers (32.3 U/g hemoglobin). Twelve percent of farmworkers, but no nonfarmworkers, had very low levels. Farmworkers applying pesticides also had lower cholinesterase levels. One half of farmworkers reported being sprayed by pesticides and working in fields with an obvious chemical smell. Of reported symptoms, only diarrhea was associated with cholinesterase levels. Reported exposures, however, were strongly associated with symptoms.

Conclusions: Farmworkers reported many pesticide exposures that violate state and federal regulations. Farmworkers had cholinesterase levels significantly lower than those of nonfarmworkers, although only spraying pesticides was associated with very low levels.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Acetylcholinesterase / blood*
  • Acetylcholinesterase / metabolism
  • Adult
  • Agriculture*
  • Agrochemicals / adverse effects
  • Cholinesterase Inhibitors / adverse effects
  • Environmental Exposure / analysis
  • Erythrocytes / metabolism
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Insecticides / adverse effects*
  • Male
  • North Carolina / epidemiology
  • Occupational Exposure / analysis*
  • Occupational Exposure / prevention & control
  • Transients and Migrants*


  • Agrochemicals
  • Cholinesterase Inhibitors
  • Insecticides
  • Acetylcholinesterase