Background: Occupational epidemiological studies on pesticide use commonly rely on self-reported questionnaire or interview data to assess exposure. Insight into recall accuracy is important, as misclassification of exposures due to imperfect recall can bias risk estimates.
Methods: We assessed the ability of workers in three UK cohorts (Prospective Investigation of Pesticide Applicators’ Health [PIPAH], Pesticide Users’ Health Study [PUHS], and Study of Health in Agricultural Work [SHAW]) to remember their working history related to pesticide exposure over time periods ranging from 3-14 years prior. During 2019-2020, cohort participants were re-surveyed using a similar questionnaire to that used previously. We compared recall of responses at follow-up to those reported at baseline related to crops/areas of work, use of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) items, hygiene habits, frequency of pesticide use, and application method. To assess the extent of recall, we used sensitivity, specificity, the percentage of overall agreement, and area under the curve (AUC) values. We also examined the presence of over or underestimation of recalled years, and days and hours per year, of working with pesticides using geometric mean ratios (GMR) and regression analysis to investigate any trends based on demographic characteristics.
Results: There were 643 individuals who completed both the baseline and follow-up surveys in the three cohorts with response rates ranging from 17%-46%. There was a strong correlation (rho=0.77) between the baseline and recalled years working with pesticides, though higher values were reported at follow-up (GMR=1.18 [95% CI: 1.07-1.30]) with no consistent differences by demographic characteristics. There was stronger agreement in the recalled days compared to hours per year in two of the cohorts. Recall for a number of exposure determinants across short and longer periods entailed overall agreement of >70%, though with some differences: for example, sensitivity for long-term recall of crops was poor (<43% in PUHS), whereas short-term recall of hygiene practices was good (AUC range=0.65-1.00 in PIPAH).
Conclusion: Results indicate that recall ability may deteriorate over a longer period. Although low response rates may require these findings to be interpreted with caution, recall for a number of exposure determinants appeared reliable, such as crops and hygiene practices within three years, as well as days per year working with pesticides.
Keywords: pesticides; recall; bias; exposure misclassification; self-report questionnaires.