Original article

Scand J Work Environ Health 1999;25(4):342-350    pdf

doi:10.5271/sjweh.444 | Issue date: Aug 1999

Neuropsychological effects associated with exposure to mercury vapor among former chloralkali workers

by Mathiesen T, Ellingsen DG, Kjuus H

Objectives This investigation studied possible neuropsychological effects among former chloralkali workers with past exposure to mercury vapor.

Methods Seventy-five formerly exposed workers who had been examined with an extensive neuropsychological test battery were compared with 52 referents frequency-matched for age. The tests measured general cognitive function, motor and psychomotor function, attention, memory, and learning. The groups were similar in educational level, age, and verbal comprehension. The mean exposure time to mercury vapor in the index group was 7.9 (range 1.1–36.2) years with an annual mean urinary mercury concentration of 539 (range 41–2921) nmol/(l · year). The mean time since the cessation of exposure was 12.7 (range 1.0–35.0) years.

Results Performance on the grooved pegboard (dominant hand 75.8 versus 70.9 seconds, P<0.05; nondominant hand 82.2 versus 76.3 seconds, P=0.02) and the Benton visual retention test (mean number of correct reproductions 6.9 versus 7.5, P<0.05) was poorer among the formerly exposed workers when compared with the referents. In addition the subjects who had experienced the highest intensity of exposure [cumulative urinary mercury index ≥550 nmol/(l · year)] had a poorer performance on the trailmaking test, part A and B, on the digit symbol test, and on the word pairs test (retention errors).

Conclusions The presented results suggest a slight persistent effect of mercury vapor exposure on the central nervous system, mainly involving motor functions and attention, but also possibly related to the visual system. Previous exposure does not seem to have affected the workers` general intellectual level or their ability to reason logically.