Importance: Millions of adults now entering middle age were exposed to high levels of lead, a developmental neurotoxin, as children. Although childhood lead exposure has been linked to disrupted behavioral development, the long-term consequences for adult mental and behavioral health have not been fully characterized.
Objective: To examine whether childhood lead exposure is associated with greater psychopathology across the life course and difficult adult personality traits.
Design, setting, and participants: This prospective cohort study was based on a population-representative birth cohort of individuals born between April 1, 1972, and March 31, 1973, in Dunedin, New Zealand, the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study. Members were followed up in December 2012 when they were 38 years of age. Data analysis was performed from March 14, 2018, to October 24, 2018.
Exposures: Childhood lead exposure ascertained as blood lead levels measured at 11 years of age. Blood lead levels were unrelated to family socioeconomic status.
Main outcomes and measures: Primary outcomes were adult mental health disorder symptoms assessed through clinical interview at 18, 21, 26, 32, and 38 years of age and transformed through confirmatory factor analysis into continuous measures of general psychopathology and internalizing, externalizing, and thought disorder symptoms (all standardized to a mean [SD] of 100 ) and adult personality assessed through informant report using the Big Five Personality Inventory (assessing neuroticism, extraversion, openness to experience, agreeableness, and conscientiousness) at 26, 32, and 38 years of age (all scores standardized to a mean [SD] of 0 ). Hypotheses were formulated after data collection; an analysis plan was posted in advance.
Results: Of 1037 original study members, 579 (55.8%) were tested for lead exposure at 11 years of age (311 [53.7%] male). The mean (SD) blood lead level was 11.08 (4.96) μg/dL. After adjusting for study covariates, each 5-μg/dL increase in childhood blood lead level was associated with a 1.34-point increase (95% CI, 0.11-2.57; P = .03) in general psychopathology, driven by internalizing (b = 1.41; 95% CI, 0.19-2.62; P = .02) and thought disorder (b = 1.30; 95% CI, 0.06-2.54; P = .04) symptoms. Each 5-μg/dL increase in childhood blood lead level was also associated with a 0.10-SD increase in neuroticism (95% CI, 0.02-0.08; P = .02), a 0.09-SD decrease in agreeableness (95% CI, -0.18 to -0.01; P = .03), and a 0.14-SD decrease in conscientiousness (95% CI, -0.25 to -0.03; P = .01). There were no statistically significant associations with informant-rated extraversion (b = -0.09; 95% CI, -0.17 to 0.004; P = .06) and openness to experience (b = -0.07; 95% CI, -0.17 to 0.03; P = .15).
Conclusions and relevance: In this multidecade, longitudinal study of lead-exposed children, higher childhood blood lead level was associated with greater psychopathology across the life course and difficult adult personality traits. Childhood lead exposure may have long-term consequences for adult mental health and personality.