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Tuesday, 24 October, 2000, 10:47 GMT 11:47 UK
Lead 'accelerates ageing'
Chemical workers
The study looked at the effects in chemical workers
Exposure to lead can cause premature ageing of the brain and memory problems later in life, according to a study.

Research carried out in the US studied more than 535 people who had been exposed to lead through their work at a chemical company.

Neurological tests revealed that they had high levels of lead in their brain, years after they had stopped working with the chemical.

They were also found to have serious problems when it came to memorising images or language, learning and organising or planning anything.

This research highlights how important it is to get lead out of society as far as possible

Dr Michael Warhurst, Safer Chemicals Campaign

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, US, compared 535 former chemical manufacturing employees exposed to lead at work to 118 non-exposed people from the same area.

Individuals were studied for four years. The workers had been exposed to lead for an average of eight years but had not worked with the chemical for an average of 16 years.

The researchers studied lead levels in the brain through blood tests and x-rays.

They found that the former workers had levels of bone lead which were equivalent to five more years of ageing on the brain.

Their research revealed that the normal age-related decline of the brain was faster in those people who had been exposed to lead.

They also showed that the higher the bone lead levels the worse these individuals did in memory and visual tests.

The researchers suggested that because the decline was evident years after the individuals had stopped working, it showed that the effects of lead on the brain got worse with age.

Dr Brian Schwartz, from Johns Hopkins University, said: "Since these declines were seen long after exposure to lead had stopped, it suggests that the effect of lead on the brain is progressive."

He added: "This is the first study to explore long-term problems caused by exposure to chemicals as adults.

"Some of what we have been calling 'normal ageing' may in fact be due to past exposures to chemicals or other agents that can affect the central nervous system."

Health hazards

Dr Michael Warhurst, from the Safer Chemicals Campaign in the UK, said: "There has been research for some time on the effects of exposure to lead on children.

"This research highlights how important it is to get lead out of society as far as possible," he said.

"We have already get out of petrol, but we still have lead water pipes in some areas and it can still be found in some old paints.

"The health hazards of lead have been established for many years and there has been a move away from it."

The study is published in the scientific journal of the American Academy of Neurology.

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