OBJECTIVE: To evaluate the neuropsychological effects of current low level and previous higher levels of exposure to lead and evaluate the relation between effects of lead and bone lead. METHODS: A neuropsychological test battery was given to 54 storage battery workers with well documented long term exposure to lead. The effect was studied in two subgroups: those whose blood lead had never exceeded 2.4 mmol/l (the low BPbmax group, n = 26), and those with higher exposure about 10 years earlier (the high BPbmax group, n = 28). In both groups, the recent exposure had been low. Correlations between the test scores and the indices of both long term and recent exposure--including the content of lead in the tibial and calcaneal bone--and covariance analyses were used to assess the exposure-effect relation. Age, sex, and education were controlled in these analyses. RESULTS: Analyses within the low BPbmax group showed a decrement in visuospatial and visuomotor function (block design, memory for design, Santa Ana dexterity), attention (digit symbol, digit span), and verbal comprehension (similarities) associated with exposure to lead and also an increased reporting of subjective symptoms. The performance of the high BPbmax group was worse than that of the low BPbmax group for digit symbol, memory for design, and embedded figures, but there was no reporting of symptoms related to exposure, probably due to selection in this group. No relation was found between the output variables and the tibial lead concentration. The calcaneal lead concentrations were related to the symptoms in the low BPbmax group. CONCLUSIONS: Neuropsychological decrements found in subjects with high past and low present exposure indicate that blood lead concentrations rising to 2.5-4.9 mmol/l cause a risk of long lasting or even permanent impairment of central nervous system function. Milder and narrower effects are associated with lower exposures; their reversibility and time course remain to be investigated. History of blood lead gives a more accurate prediction of the neuropsychological effects of lead than do measurements of bone lead.
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