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Rev Panam Salud Publica. 2003 Sep;14(3):171-85.

Sources of exposure to and public health implications of organophosphate pesticides.

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VA Hudson Valley Healthcare System, Montrose Research Corporation, Montrose, New York 10523, USA.



To review the public health significance of organophosphate pesticide exposure in the United States of America. Since the situation of high organophosphate pesticide exposure and the concomitant health risks in the developing countries of the world is well known, this article seeks to highlight the public health significance of organophosphate exposure in the United States, where it is less common than in many other nations. Looking at the situation in the United States would serve to further emphasize the seriousness of organophosphate pesticide-related health issues in developing countries.


A search for journal articles on organophosphate pesticides and organophosphate exposure was done on the PubMed electronic bibliographic database system of the National Library of Medicine of the United States. To supplement that search, information on organophosphate toxicity, biological monitoring, and regulation of pesticides was obtained from other published articles, textbooks, and relevant Internet sites.


Organophosphate pesticides are a group of chemicals that are mainly used in agriculture. Organophosphates inhibit the activity of both the cholinesterase (ChE) enzymes-red blood cell (RBC) ChE and serum ChE-resulting in the cholinergic features of organophosphate toxicity. A 50% reduction in serum ChE activity from the baseline is an indication of acute organophosphate toxicity. The RBC ChE activity, which is less rapidly depressed than the serum ChE activity, is a measure of chronic exposure to organophosphates. Exposures to organophosphates are broadly classified into two categories: occupational and environmental. Occupational exposures occur among agricultural workers (including migrant farmworkers), industrial workers, pest control exterminators, and other workers. Nonoccupational exposure affects a large segment of the general population in the United States. Residential exposures come from organophosphate pesticide use by exterminators and by household residents as well as from dietary and accidental exposures. Other environmental exposures occur in public places and areas close to farms, and exposures could also happen from organophosphate use in chemical warfare or terrorism. In the United States some organophosphate pesticides are restricted by the Environmental Protection Agency in order to protect humans, animals, and the environment. In addition, the Food Quality Protection Act regulates dietary exposure to pesticides, particularly for infants and children.


Organophosphate pesticides continue to pose a risk to human health in the United States. Biological monitoring should be used to strictly regulate occupational exposures to organophosphates and thus protect the health and safety of workers. Among the public there should be an increased awareness of environmental exposure to organophosphates as well as of the threat of chemical warfare or terrorism.

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