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Brain & Nervous System Health Center

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Workplace Solvents and Long-Term Memory Problems

Study of French retirees shows those exposed even decades ago scored worse on tests


But, she also noted, "in people who'd had a lot of exposure 30-50 years before the testing but not since then, the effects stayed. They didn't fade away."

It's possible that the chemicals had nothing or little to do with the differences in thinking powers between the workers in the studies. However, the researchers report that the differences persisted even after they adjusted for such factors as education levels.

Dr. Daniel Teitelbaum, adjunct professor of occupational and environmental health at the University of Colorado School of Public Health, said the study findings fit with decades of research into the risks that workers exposed to these chemicals will develop thinking problems. The hazards "have been obvious to people who do occupational medicine toxicology, but vigorously fought by industry," he said.

The higher rate of thinking problems matters, he added, because it gives people a mental handicap going into old age when they're already prone to declines in thinking.

What to do? Sabbath said the chemicals are common in American workplaces, appearing in 12-13 percent of them. "Given that things like dementia and Alzheimer's disease are on the rise and there's no known cure, it's important that we prevent cognitive problems," she said. "Wear a respirator if you're working with one of these chemicals, or use safer versions of paint or paint thinner."

Better regulations are the best ways to prevent problems, she added, but the current "maximum permissible exposure level may be too high to completely protect workers. This puts the onus on employers to protect their workers either by eliminating the exposure altogether or, if they can't eliminate it, by providing adequate protective equipment to their workers and enforcing its use."

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