researchA new study published recently in the journal Neurology suggests a link between workplace solvents and memory loss.

Researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health and the University of Colorado School of Public Health examined the results of memory and cognitive tests conducted on more than 2,000 retirees of the French national utility company about ten years after they’d retired.

The results? Those who’d been exposed to solvents and benzene on the job didn’t score as well on the tests as others. Furthermore, those with the highest or longest lasting exposure levels scored worse in a variety of areas.

Who was studied

The study participants were, on average, 66 years old. Approximately 33 pecent of them had been exposed to chlorinated solvents on the job, 26 percent to benzene and 25% to petroleum solvents.

While the findings don’t establish a causal link, the study’s lead author pointed out that solvents are absorbed by brain tissue and cause impairment in cognitive tasks.

"The effects stayed"

Erika Sabbath, a research fellow with the Harvard School of Public Health, 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."

Solvents, which are used to dissolve other substances, are widely used in manufacturing. Benzene is a suspected carcinogen.

The researchers report that the differences persisted even after they adjusted for such factors as education levels.

"Vigorously fought by industry"

Dr. Daniel Teitelbaum, adjunct professor of occupational and environmental health at the University of Colorado School of Public Health, said the study findings were consistent with earlier research projects. The hazards "have been obvious to people who do occupational medicine toxicology, but vigorously fought by industry," he said.

Teitelbaum pointed out that the effect can exacerbate the normal diminishment of cognitive ability that occurs as people enter old age.

Prevention is important

Sabbath recommended respirator use for those who work with the chemicals, as well as using safere versions of paint and paint thinner.

"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 also called for better regulations, adding that 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."