Maternal stress modifies the effect of exposure to lead during pregnancy and 24-month old children's neurodevelopment

Environ Int. 2017 Jan:98:191-197. doi: 10.1016/j.envint.2016.11.005. Epub 2016 Nov 16.


Background: Lead and psychosocial stress disrupt similar but not completely overlapping mechanisms. Exposure during the prenatal period to each of these insults singularly has been found to alter normal neurodevelopment; however, longitudinal associations with stress modifying the effect of lead have not been sufficiently analyzed in epidemiologic studies.

Objective: To evaluate prenatal stress as an effect modifier of gestational lead neurotoxicity.

Methods: We used a structural equations modeling approach with a trivariate response to evaluate cognitive, language and motor scores of the Bayley Scales of Infant Development-III in 24month-old children (n=360). Maternal blood lead levels were measured at the 2nd and 3rd trimester and psychosocial stress during pregnancy was assessed using a negative life events (NLE) scale derived from the CRYSIS questionnaire.

Results: 3rd trimester lead (mean 3.9±3.0 SDμg/dL) and stress (median=3 NLE) were negatively associated with Bayley III scores. Using the model's results we generated profiles for 0, 2, 4 and 6 NLE across lead levels (up to 10μg/dL) and observed a dose-response for the developmental scores when lead levels were below 2μg/dL. Each NLE curve had a different shape across increasing lead levels. Higher stress (NLE=6) resulted in lower cognitive scores for both sexes, in lower language scores in girls but not boys. In the absence of stress we saw a negative association with lead for all scores, however for language and motor scores, higher stress seemed to mask this association.

Conclusions: Our work examined and confirmed prenatal stress exposure as a modifier of the well-known neurotoxic effects of prenatal lead. It adds to the existing evidence pointing at the importance of studying the co-exposure of chemical and non-chemical exposures, specifically of considering the emotional environment of children at early developmental stages of life.

Keywords: Effect modification; Lead; Neurodevelopment; Prenatal; Stress.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Child Development / drug effects
  • Child, Preschool
  • Cognition
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Language Development*
  • Lead / adverse effects*
  • Lead / blood
  • Male
  • Maternal Exposure*
  • Motor Skills
  • Pregnancy
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects*
  • Stress, Psychological*
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Young Adult


  • Lead