In the debate on chronic effects of solvent use, it is often difficult to find information on the cerebral health status of subjects before any exposure has occurred. The objective of this study was to obtain baseline data by examination of workers at the beginning of their occupational lives. This study compares the performance of 57 apprentice painters, mean age 16.6 ± 1.2 years, with that of 62 apprentices, mean age 16.2 ± years, drawn from other manual trades involving no significant exposure to solvents. Their performances were compared twice over a period of 3 years using a series of behavioral tests chosen from a translated version of the Neurobehavioral Evaluation System (NES). There were no major differences in performance between the apprentices, except for the verbal ability test, which showed lower results for painters. This can be explained by factors such as socioeconomic background, previous schooling, or mother tongue, and raises the question of whether it is appropriate to use such a test to adjust for the influence of premorbid ability in elderly exposed workers. © 1996 Wiley-Liss, Inc.