OBJECTIVES: The questionnaire 16 (Q16) is commonly used to study prevalences of neurotoxic symptoms among workers exposed to organic solvents. It has also been recommended that exposed workers reporting more than six symptoms should be referred for further examination of possible chronic toxic encephalopathy. It would be useful to know whether symptoms reported in the questionnaire also reflect impairment of similar functions measured with objective or semiobjective methods in a formerly highly exposed group. METHODS: 135 painters and 71 carpenters answered the Q16, were interviewed about symptoms compatible with an organic brain damage, and took a battery of psychometric tests. A subsample of 52 painters and 45 carpenters were interviewed for psychiatric diagnosis according to Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders, 3rd version (DSM III) and their vibration thresholds in hands and feet were measured. The entire group was followed up in the register of diagnoses at early retirement 1971-93. The lifetime exposure to organic solvents was assessed. Current exposure to organic solvents was found to be low or none. RESULTS: The prevalence of people with more than six symptoms in the Q16 rose with increasing cumulative exposure to solvents. The sensitivity of the questionnaire (more than six symptoms) to detect people who were assessed to exhibit symptoms compatible with an organic brain damage was only 38%. One of seven people who had retired early with a diagnosis compatible with a chronic toxic encephalopathy, and two of five people with a psychiatric diagnosis compatible with this condition, had more than six symptoms in the Q16. The agreement between Q16 replies and psychometric test results, as well as other examinations, was low. CONCLUSIONS: The notable exposure-response relation indicates that the questionnaire is useful for comparison of groups with different exposures to organic solvents. There was low agreement between the number of symptoms on the questionnaire and the assessment of symptoms compatible with organic brain damage, as well as psychiatric, or early retirement diagnoses compatible with chronic toxic encephalopathy. The questionnaire does not seem useful for screening of patients with chronic toxic encephalopathy in groups without ongoing exposure to organic solvents.