Stunting and lead: using causal mediation analysis to better understand how environmental lead exposure affects cognitive outcomes in children

Gleason, Kelsey M.; Valeri, Linda; Shankar, Anuraj H.; Obrycki, John F.; Ibne Hasan, Md O. S.; Mostofa, Golam; Quamruzzaman, Quazi; Wright, Robert O.; Christiani, David C.; Bellinger, David C.; Mazumdar, Maitreyi

Many children in Bangladesh experience poor nutritional status and environmental lead exposure, both of which are associated with lower scores on neurodevelopmental assessments. Recent studies have suggested that part of lead’s adverse effects on neurodevelopment are caused in part by lead’s effect on growth. New statistical methods are now available to evaluate potential causal pathways in observational studies. This study used a novel statistical method to test the hypothesis that stunting, a measure of linear growth related to poor nutrition, is a mediator and/or an effect modifier of the lead exposure’s adverse effect on cognitive development.

Participants were 734 children from a longitudinal birth cohort established in rural Bangladesh to study the health effects of prenatal and early childhood environmental metal exposures. Lead exposure was estimated using umbilical cord blood samples obtained at birth and blood obtained via venipuncture at age 20–40 months. Stunting was determined using the World Health Organization’s standards. Neurodevelopment was assessed at age 20–40 months years using the Bayley Scales of Infant and Toddler Development, Third Edition (BSID-III). We evaluated the effect of lead on stunting and whether the effect of lead on cognitive scores is modified by stunting status in multivariable regression analyses. We then conducted a novel 4-way mediation analysis that allows for exposure-mediator interaction to assess how much of the effect of lead on cognitive scores is explained by the pathway through stunting (mediation) and how much is explained by the interaction between lead and stunt (effect modification).

Stunting was not a mediator of the effect of lead in our analyses. Results suggested effect modification by stunting. In an area of Bangladesh with lower lead exposures (median umbilical cord blood lead concentration, 1.7 μg/dL), stunting modified the relationship between prenatal blood lead concentrations and cognitive score at age 2–3 years. A 1-unit increase in natural log cord blood lead concentration in the presence of stunting was associated with a 2.1-unit decrease in cognitive scores (β = − 2.10, SE = 0.71, P = 0.003). This interaction was not found in a second study site where lead exposures were higher (median umbilical cord blood lead concentration, 6.1 μg/dL, β = − 0.45, SE = 0.49, P = 0.360).

We used a novel method of mediation analysis to test whether stunting mediated the adverse effect of prenatal lead exposure on cognitive outcomes in Bangladesh. While we did not find that stunting acted as mediator of lead’s effect on cognitive development, we found significant effect modification by stunting. Our results suggest that children with stunting are more vulnerable to the adverse effects of low-level lead exposure.

Geographic Areas


  • thumnail for 11689_2020_Article_9346.pdf 11689_2020_Article_9346.pdf application/pdf 454 KB Download File

Also Published In

Journal of Neurodevelopmental Disorders

More About This Work

Published Here
September 22, 2023


Bangladesh, Bayley Scales of Infant Development, Cognitive development, Blood lead, Mediation analysis, Stunting