OBJECTIVES--To evaluate the effects of chronic exposure to lead on the peripheral nervous system in lead workers. METHODS--Nerve conduction velocity and electromyographic studies were performed on 31 lead workers of a battery recycling factory and 31 sex and age matched controls. 25 cases with mild distal extensor weakness of the upper limbs were classified as the lead neuropathy subgroup and the rest of the lead workers as the lead exposure subgroup. Blood lead concentrations and haematological and biochemical data were recorded. An index of cumulative exposure to lead was calculated by the summation of multiplying the average blood concentration of lead with the duration of exposure at various jobs. RESULTS--Compared with the control group, the distal motor latency of the median nerve was significantly prolonged in the lead neuropathy subgroup, but not in the exposure subgroup. Only six of 31 workers had nerve conduction abnormalities, whereas electromyographic evidence of denervation was found in 93.5% of the lead neuropathy subgroup and 83.5% in the lead exposure subgroup. The electromyographic abnormalities found were neurogenic polyphasic waves in all 29 workers with abnormal electromyographic findings (grade in seven cases and grade ++ in the rest). Spontaneous activity was only recorded in seven workers, with grade + in four and grade ++ in three. There was a positive linear correlation between the index of cumulative exposure to lead and the distal motor latencies of the tibial nerve as well as a negative correlation with conduction velocities of the sural nerve after multivariate analysis and control of potential confounding by age and sex. No correlation could be found between the electrophysiological values and a simple duration of exposure or concentration of blood lead. A non-parametric analysis showed that there was a trend of higher index of cumulative exposure to lead with more severe electromyographic changes. Electromyographic abnormality also occurred in workers with blood lead concentrations between 17.4 and 58 micrograms/dl. CONCLUSION--Electromyographic study in the distal extensors of the upper limbs may be used as a tool for biological monitoring of effect in lead workers.
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