Abstract Background IGF binding protein-3 (IGFBP-3) regulates the bioavailability of insulin-like growth factors I and II, and has both anti-proliferative and pro-apoptotic properties. Elevated plasma IGFBP-3 has been associated with reduced risk of colorectal cancer (CRC), but the role of tissue IGFBP-3 is not well defined. We evaluated the association between tissue or plasma IGFBP-3 and risk of colorectal adenomas or low apoptosis. Methods Subjects were consenting patients who underwent a clinically indicated colonoscopy at UNC Hospitals and provided information on diet and lifestyle. IGFBP-3 mRNA in normal colon was assessed by real time RT-PCR. Plasma IGFBP-3 was measured by ELISA and apoptosis was determined by morphology on H & E slides. Logistic regression was used to compute odds ratio (OR) and 95% confidence intervals. Results We observed a modest correlation between plasma IGFBP-3 and tissue IGFBP-3 expression (p = 0.007). There was no significant association between plasma IGFBP-3 and adenomas or apoptosis. Tissue IGFBP-3 mRNA expression was significantly lower in cases than controls. Subjects in the lowest three quartiles of tissue IGFBP-3 gene expression were more likely to have adenomas. Consistent with previous reports, low apoptosis was significantly associated with increased risk of adenomas (p = 0.003). Surprisingly, local IGFBP-3 mRNA expression was inversely associated with apoptosis. Conclusion Low expression of IGFBP-3 mRNA in normal colonic mucosa predicts increased risk of adenomas. Our findings suggest that local IGFBP-3 in the colon may directly increase adenoma risk but IGFBP-3 may act through a pathway other than apoptosis to influence adenoma risk.