Solvent exposure and cognitive function

Exposure to solvents on the job may reduce cognitive skills later in life for those with less than a high school education, Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) researchers and their French colleagues report in a new study. Cognitive skills of more educated workers were not affected, even if they were exposed to the same levels of solvents.

“People with more education may have a greater cognitive reserve that acts like a buffer, allowing the brain to maintain its ability to function in spite of damage,” said senior author Lisa Berkman, director of the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies (HCPDS), and Cabot Professor of Public Policy, Epidemiology, and Global Health and Population at HSPH, in a press statement. “This may be because education helps build up a dense network of connections among brain cells.”

The study was published in the May 29, 2012, print issue of Neurology. Read the abstract

“This paper suggests that the earlier part of life may be a very sensitive time to build up cognitive reserve, and could bolster arguments that keeping kids in school could have additional positive effects on health,” lead author Erika Sabbath, HSPH research fellow,told MedPage Today.

Organic solvents are known risk factors for cognitive impairment, affecting central nervous system functioning, attention, processing speed, and motor performance. Solvents are used in paints, degreasers, and adhesives.

Investing in education as a possible shield against known and unknown exposures is especially important, given that some evidence shows that federal levels of permissible exposure to some solvents may be insufficient to protect workers against health consequences of exposure, said Sabbath in the paper.

Read the MedPage Today article

Learn more

American Academy of Neurology press release

Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies