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Environ Health Perspect. 1999 Jul;107(7):575-82.

Immune responses in farm workers after exposure to Bacillus thuringiensis pesticides.

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Division of Immunology, Department of Internal Medicine, University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, Cincinnati, Ohio, USA.


Although health risks to pesticides containing Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) have been minimal, the potential allergenicity of these organisms has not been evaluated. Therefore, a health survey was conducted in farm workers before and after exposure to Bt pesticides. Farm workers who picked vegetables that required Bt pesticide spraying were evaluated before the initial spraying operation (n = 48) and 1 and 4 months after (n = 32 and 20, respectively). Two groups of low- (n = 44) and medium- (n = 34) exposure workers not directly exposed to Bt spraying were also assessed. The investigation included questionnaires, nasal/mouth lavages, ventilatory function assessment, and skin tests to indigenous aeroallergens and to a variety of Bt spore and vegetative preparations. To authenticate exposure to the organism present in the commercial preparation, isolates from lavage specimens were tested for Bt genes by DNA-DNA hybridization. Humoral immunoglobulin G (IgG) and immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibody responses to spore and vegetative Bt extracts were assayed. There was no evidence of occupationally related respiratory symptoms. Positive skin-prick tests to several spore extracts were seen chiefly in exposed workers. In particular, there was a significant (p < 0.05) increase in the number of positive skin tests to spore extracts 1 and 4 months after exposure to Bt spray. The number of positive skin test responses was also significantly higher in high (p < 0.05) than in low- or medium-exposure workers. The majority of nasal lavage cultures from exposed workers was positive for the commercial Bt organism, as demonstrated by specific molecular genetic probes. Specific IgE antibodies were present in more high-exposure workers (p < 0.05) than in the low and medium groups. Specific IgG antibodies occurred more in the high (p < 0.05) than in the low-exposure group. Specific IgG and IgE antibodies to vegetative organisms were present in all groups of workers. Exposure to Bt sprays may lead to allergic skin sensitization and induction of IgE and IgG antibodies, or both.

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