A set of neurobehavioural tests selected on the basis of information processing theory was used to study the effect of low level occupational lead exposure on 59 lead workers compared with a matched control group of the same number. Only one of the lead exposed group had a blood lead concentration above the current threshold limit value of 3.81 mumol/l at the time of testing (mean 2.36 mumol/l, range 1.19-3.92 mumol/l) and none had been detected above that level in the previous three years. Nevertheless, most neurobehavioural functions tested showed some impairment in the lead workers. Visual sensory function was affected and, perhaps as a consequence, sustained attention and psychomotor tasks were performed more slowly by the lead exposed group. Cognitive functions were also impaired, with sensory store memory, short term memory, and learning abilities all showing deficits in lead workers. Such cognitive deficits may also be partly due to initial degradation of the visual input. Long term memory performance compared equally with control levels possibly because of development of a compensatory strategy such as rehearsal by the lead exposed subjects. Multiple linear regression analysis relating to lead workers test performance and their lead exposure showed that performance on the sensory store memory test alone was significantly related to exposure. This was probably due to the homogeneity of the lead exposed group with regard to blood lead concentrations and the use of blood lead as a measure of chronic lead exposure.
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