Racial residential segregation shapes the relationship between early childhood lead exposure and fourth-grade standardized test scores

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2022 Aug 23;119(34):e2117868119. doi: 10.1073/pnas.2117868119. Epub 2022 Aug 15.


Racial/ethnic disparities in academic performance may result from a confluence of adverse exposures that arise from structural racism and accrue to specific subpopulations. This study investigates childhood lead exposure, racial residential segregation, and early educational outcomes. Geocoded North Carolina birth data is linked to blood lead surveillance data and fourth-grade standardized test scores (n = 25,699). We constructed a census tract-level measure of racial isolation (RI) of the non-Hispanic Black (NHB) population. We fit generalized additive models of reading and mathematics test scores regressed on individual-level blood lead level (BLL) and neighborhood RI of NHB (RINHB). Models included an interaction term between BLL and RINHB. BLL and RINHB were associated with lower reading scores; among NHB children, an interaction was observed between BLL and RINHB. Reading scores for NHB children with BLLs of 1 to 3 µg/dL were similar across the range of RINHB values. For NHB children with BLLs of 4 µg/dL, reading scores were similar to those of NHB children with BLLs of 1 to 3 µg/dL at lower RINHB values (less racial isolation/segregation). At higher RINHB levels (greater racial isolation/segregation), children with BLLs of 4 µg/dL had lower reading scores than children with BLLs of 1 to 3 µg/dL. This pattern becomes more marked at higher BLLs. Higher BLL was associated with lower mathematics test scores among NHB and non-Hispanic White (NHW) children, but there was no evidence of an interaction. In conclusion, NHB children with high BLLs residing in high RINHB neighborhoods had worse reading scores.

Keywords: cognitive outcomes; lead exposure; racial residential segregation; standardized test scores.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Academic Performance* / statistics & numerical data
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Environmental Exposure* / statistics & numerical data
  • Housing* / standards
  • Housing* / statistics & numerical data
  • Humans
  • Lead
  • Lead Poisoning* / epidemiology
  • Racial Groups
  • Social Segregation*


  • Lead