The effects of low exposure to inorganic mercury on psychological performance was investigated: the study groups included eight chronically exposed workers and 20 who were only occasionally exposed. These were compared with a control group of 22 subjects from the same plant who were not exposed to mercury. All subjects were administered the WHO test battery to detect preclinical signs of central nervous system impairment: the battery includes the Santa Ana (Helsinki version) test, simple reaction time, the Benton test, and the Wechsler digit span and digit symbol. In addition, the Gordon test was used to study personality profiles and the clinical depression questionnaire. Urinary mercury was used as indicator for internal dose. To this effect, urinary mercury observed in workers examined from 1979 to 1987 was evaluated. Of the pyschic functions explored by behavioural tests, only short term auditory memory was found to be impaired in the chronically exposed workers (p less than 0.05 compared with the controls). The chronically exposed workers were also found to be more depressed than those in the two other groups. No changes of visual motor functions were observed. The personality of the occupationally exposed workers was found to be considerably changed compared with that of the control group. On the basis of the results obtained and in view of urinary mercury mean concentrations in the exposed group which were 30-40 micrograms/l over the years, it is suggested that the TLV-TWA for mercury should be lowered to 0.025 mg/m3 and that the biological urinary exposure indicator for biological monitoring should be 25 micrograms/l.
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