Background: Although adverse neuropsychological and neurological health effects are well known among workers with high manganese (Mn) exposures in mining, ore-processing and ferroalloy production, the risks among welders with lower exposures are less well understood.
Methods: Confined space welding in construction of a new span of the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge without adequate protection was studied using a multidisciplinary method to identify the dose–effect relationship between adverse health effects and Mn in air or whole blood. Bridge welders (n = 43) with little or no personal protection equipment and exposed to a welding fume containing Mn, were administered neurological, neuropsychological, neurophysiological and pulmonary tests. Outcome variables were analysed in relation to whole blood Mn (MnB) and a Cumulative Exposure Index (CEI) based on Mn-air, duration and type of welding. Welders performed a mean of 16.5 months of welding on the bridge, were on average 43.8 years of age and had on average 12.6 years of education.
Results: The mean time weighted average of Mn-air ranged from 0.11–0.46 mg/m3 (55% >0.20 mg/m3). MnB >10 µg/l was found in 43% of the workers, but the concentrations of Mn in urine, lead in blood and copper and iron in plasma were normal. Forced expiratory volume at 1s: forced vital capacity ratios (FEV1/FVC) were found to be abnormal in 33.3% of the welders after about 1.5 years of welding at the bridge. Mean scores of bradykinesia and Unified Parkinson Disease Rating Scale exceeded 4 and 6, respectively. Computer assisted tremor analysis system hand tremor and body sway tests, and University of Pennsylvania Smell Identification Test showed impairment in 38.5/61.5, 51.4 and 88% of the welders, respectively. Significant inverse dose–effect relationships with CEI and/or MnB were found for IQ (p⩽0.05), executive function (p⩽0.03), sustaining concentration and sequencing (p⩽0.04), verbal learning (p⩽0.01), working (p⩽0.04) and immediate memory (p⩽0.02), even when adjusted for demographics and years of welding before Bay Bridge. Symptoms reported by the welders while working were: tremors (41.9%); numbness (60.5%); excessive fatigue (65.1%); sleep disturbance (79.1%); sexual dysfunction (58.1%); toxic hallucinations (18.6%); depression (53.5%); and anxiety (39.5%). Dose–effect associations between CEI and sexual function (p<0.05), fatigue (p<0.05), depression (p<0.01) and headache (p<0.05) were statistically significant.
Conclusions: Confined space welding was shown to be associated with neurological, neuropsychological and pulmonary adverse health effects. A careful enquiry of occupational histories is recommended for all welders presenting with neurological or pulmonary complaints, and a more stringent prevention strategy should be considered for Mn exposure due to inhalation of welding fume.
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- Cal-OSHA, California Division of Occupational Safety and Health
- CATSYS, computer assisted tremor analysis system
- CEI, Cumulative Exposure Index
- FCAW, Flux Cored Arc Welding
- FVC, forced vital capacity
- FEV1, forced expiratory volume at 1 s
- IPD, idiopathic Parkinson’s disease
- Mn-air, manganese air levels
- MnB, whole blood manganese
- MRI, magnetic resonance imaging
- SCL-90-R, Symptom Checklist 90-Revised
- SMAW, Shielded Metal Arc Welding
- UPDRS, Unified Parkinson Disease Rating Scale
- UPSIT, University of Pennsylvania Smell Identification Test
- WAIS-III, Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale
- WMS III, Wechsler Memory Scale
Published Online First 3 October 2006
↵* Deceased on 3 October 2005.
Funding: RMB was paid by the participants’ employer to conduct neuropsychological evaluations of the employees as part of State and Federal Workers’ Compensation administrative law proceedings. The welders’ Workers Compensation attorneys made a contribution to the medical assistants and their incidental supplies during the two days of the study in January 2005. The welder participants, in turn, agreed to participate for free in the study.
Competing interests: None.
Parts of this research have been presented on invitation at the NIOSH meeting in Morgantown, WV (June 2005), at the 9th International Symposium on Neurobehavioral Methods and Effects in Occupational and Environmental Health in Gyeongju, Korea (September 2005), at the ICOH meeting on Health Effects of Metals in Brescia, Italy (June 2006), and at the California State Department of Health Services in Oakland, California (September 2006).
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