Fumes, Glue, Benzene Linked to Decades of Brain Damage

May 13, 2014 — A lifetime of exposure to paint fumes, glue, degreaser, petroleum, and other common solvents has been linked to brain damage that may impair thinking and memory for decades, according to a study published in Neurology.

Researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health analyzed brain data on 2,143 male retired public utility workers in France. Most had started working at the utility company in their teens or early 20s and retired in their mid-50s.

About 12% had high exposure to one solvent, and 11% had high exposure to two or three. These solvents included:

  • 33% were exposed to chlorinated solvents, which are found in dry cleaning solutions, engine cleaner, paint remover, and degreaser
  • 26% were exposed to benzene, which is used to make plastics, rubber, dye, detergents, and synthetic materials.
  • 25% were exposed to petroleum solvents, which are used in carpet glue, furniture polish, paint, paint thinner, and varnish.

Researchers performed a series of eight memory exercises. They found that workers exhibited cognitive impairment from toxic chemical exposure that occurred 30-50 years before the tests. Some workers who were exposed very recently, in the last 12-30 years, had even worse cognitive impairment. Workers with high exposure to chlorinated solvents were 65% more likely to have impaired memory, visual attention, or task switching.

The study suggests that cognitive impairment after toxic chemical exposure in the workplace can last for decades. Not surprisingly, cognitive impairment was worst in participants who had recent high exposure to chemicals. The researchers recommended using a respirator and having good ventilation when working with these chemicals.

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