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Exposure to Solvents tied to Long-term Memory and Thinking Problems

Update Date: May 13, 2014 10:42 AM EDT

A new study examined the effects of exposure to solvents and benzene on people's memory and thinking skills. The researchers discovered that workers who breathed in these chemicals while on the job were more likely to have memory and thinking problems down the line.

"What it shows is that these chemicals might have more long-term effects than have previously been thought, and continue to affect people long after they are retired," said study lead author, Erika Sabbath, research fellow at the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies, reported by CNN.

For this study, the team recruited 2,143 men who had retired from the French national utility company, Electricite de France-Gaz de France. The researchers administered eight tests that measured memory and thinking powers in 2010, which was around one decade after the participants retired. At the time of the tests, the participants had an average age of 66. The study covered the time period between 1960 and 1998.

"During that time, the practices around using chemicals and personal protective equipment and the extent to which we know about harmful effects have certainly changed," Sabbath said. "It's possible that these people were exposed to higher levels than what people are exposed to today. That being said, these are some of the most common chemicals in U.S. workplaces."

The researchers also collected information on their exposure levels. They found that 33 percent had been exposed to chlorinated solvents, 26 percent had been exposed to benzene and 25 percent had been exposed to petroleum solvents. Solvents are used to dissolve other substances and are most commonly found in products such as glue, paints, plastics and pharmaceuticals.

The team calculated that the people who reported higher levels of exposure were 18 to 54 percent more likely to score poorly on these tests in comparison to retirees that had less exposure. People who were exposed more recently also performed worse on the tests. However, regardless of time, the researchers reported that the effects of exposure lasting 30-50 years did not fade away with time.

"Given that things like dementia and Alzheimer's disease are on the rise and there's no known cure, it's important that we prevent cognitive problems," Sabbath said reported by Philly. "Wear a respirator if you're working with one of these chemicals, or use safer versions of paint or paint thinner."

The study was published in Neurology.

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