Farmers and chemicals: the importance of avoidance, education and testing

  • Young man getting his blood tested by female nurse
    A farmer receiving a cholinesterase test from Agrisafe clinician Tam Phillips . Photos: National Centre for Farmer Health
  • Close up of Young man getting his blood tested by female nurse
    A farmer receiving a cholinesterase test from Agrisafe clinician Tam Phillips . Photos: National Centre for Farmer Health
National Centre for Farmer Health, Deakin University School of Medicine
Dr Jacqueline Cotton, Lecturer/Researcher Rural Health

Farmers know their chemicals are dangerous – but many don’t realise how insidious the use of chemicals groups such as organophosphates still is. Farmers experience ‘flu-like’ symptoms and may not really be able to put a finger on why they are feeling a bit off. Human exposure to agrichemicals can result from inhalation, ingestion, or eye or skin contact during the manufacture, mixing, or applications of these pesticides. Common symptoms of chemical (particularly organophosphate) exposure are headache, nausea, sweating and excess mucous.

Why is monitoring personal exposure to agrichemicals so important? There are a number of possible answers to this, including needing to find out the effect agrichemicals are having on a farmer’s number one asset, their health.

For example, cholinesterase inhibiting products are intended for insect pests but can also be poisonous, or toxic, to humans, fauna and pets in some situations because cholinesterase is one of many important enzymes needed for the proper functioning of the nervous systems of humans. Chronic and low-level cholinesterase inhibition – which is associated with a variety of adverse effects that may include degenerative neurological and psychiatric conditions – is a wakeup call. It is this type of exposure that ‘chips away’ at our buffer (the amount Cholinesterase can be decreased without having an effect on the body), eventually reaching a tipping point when symptoms emerge.

This chronic low level exposure is the type that as a farming community we need to be working to reduce and avoid. It’s the type of exposure that farmers and farm workers often don’t know about, or don’t associate with symptoms they may be experiencing.

There are few places in Australia where farmers have access to this type of testing – the type that provides an instant result and engages the farmer through follow up with a specialist registered nurse, trained in Agricultural Health and Medicine (HMF701). The capillary test is currently carried out by the National Centre for Farmer Health as a point of care test and forms part of accredited AgriSafe clinics which have a focus on farmer health, wellbeing and safety.

“Testing farmers and agricultural workers provides the Agrisafe clinician with the opportunity to correlate agrichemical usage with cholinesterase activity and identify low level exposures to agrichemicals which inhibit cholinesterase activity,” said farmer, Agrisafe clinician and Agricultural Health and Medicine Graduate, Tam Phillips.

“Often farmers don’t realise they have had a low level exposure and this assists them to review and pin point risks for unintentional exposure.”

Entering its eleventh year, Australia’s only postgraduate agricultural health and medicine unit for professionals servicing farming communities, continues to attract participants from across Australia. To date, over 190 professionals working in agriculture, medicine, allied health, and nursing from all over Australia have undertaken the annual Deakin University unit.

Registered nurses who successfully undertaken Agricultural Health and Medicine are uniquely placed to join the AgriSafe network and the NCFH network of health professionals making a difference to farmers lives. Agricultural health and medicine is not just a career, but a way of thinking that is creating change in farming communities. Professionals who successfully undertake HMF701 are uniquely placed to join the NCFH network of health professionals, agricultural professionals, and policy makers who are engaging farming communities in health, wellbeing and safety, embedding their new knowledge into their professional and community services.

To find out more about Agricultural Health and Medicine, AgriSafe™ or apply for the Graduate Certificate of Agricultural Health and Medicine, visit or contact 03 5551 8533 or email [email protected]

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