A simple, fast, and inexpensive blood test is proving effective at accurately detecting the level of pesticide exposure among agricultural workers.

Why this matters

Pesticides, commonly used in agriculture to help increase harvests, can cause serious health problems such as nerve damage among workers who are exposed to it, which makes exposure monitoring critical. At NIOSH, the Pesticide Surveillance Program monitors work-related illness and injury from exposure to pesticides.

Currently available tests for exposure monitoring are expensive, time-consuming, and require special equipment and trained personnel. To address this issue, scientists created a so-called sandwich ELISA test that is unique in its ability to measure the level of immune response-triggering molecules, or antigens. Much like the commercially available pregnancy tests, this test comprises a treated strip that reacts in the presence of specific protein molecules, or enzymes. In this case, the treated strip changed color in the presence of enzymes produced by the liver after exposure to phosphorus-based pesticides.

A NIOSH-funded study at Washington State University in Pullman, Washington, and the University of Washington in Seattle which appeared in the journal Biosensors and Bioelectronics reported on tests done to verify the ELISA test’s accuracy.

Scientists measured the level of pesticide exposure in 124 blood samples from study participants who had worked with pesticides in orchards or on cotton farms in Washington State or Pakistan. They found that the test accurately and quickly measured pesticide exposure by detecting pesticide-related enzyme activity and the total amount of enzyme in the blood. With the goal of making the test commercially available, the scientists now are verifying its accuracy and developing software to enable its use in the field.

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