To evaluate the effects of chronic lead exposure on the nervous system in adults, a set of neurobehavioural and electrophysiological tests was administered to 99 lead exposed foundry employees and 61 unexposed workers. Current and past blood lead concentrations were used to estimate the degree of lead absorption; all previous blood lead concentrations had been less than or equal to 90 micrograms/100 ml. Characteristic signs (such as wrist extensor weakness) or symptoms (such as colic) of lead poisoning were not seen. Sensory conduction in the sural nerve was not affected. By contrast, various neurobehavioural functions deteriorated with increasing lead burden. Workers with blood lead concentrations between 40 and 60 micrograms/100 ml showed impaired performance on tests of verbal concept formation, visual/motor performance, memory, and mood. Thus impairment in central nervous system function in lead exposed adults occurred in the absence of peripheral nervous system derangement and increased in severity with increasing lead dose.
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