Compared with the relatively well-investigated effects of childhood exposure to lead on neurocognitive deficits, those of prenatal exposure remain relatively inconclusive. We aimed to investigate the association between prenatal blood lead levels and neurodevelopmental delay during the first three years of life. From a prospective cohort of the Japan Environment and Children’s Study, we analyzed a total of 80,759 children. The exposure factors were prenatal lead concentrations measured from maternal whole blood in the second/third trimesters and umbilical cord blood at birth. Neurodevelopment was assessed at 6, 12, 18, 24, 30, and 36 months old using a screening tool, the Ages and Stages Questionnaires, third edition (ASQ). The outcome measures were any suspected neurodevelopmental delay (sNDD) identified via the ASQ during the first (sNDD-1Y), second (sNDD-2Y), and third (sNDD-3Y) years of life. sNDD-1Y, 2Y, and 3Y were identified in 18.0%, 16.2%, and 17.2% of children, respectively. The geometric means of blood lead concentration in this study were much lower (0.62 μg/dL in maternal blood and 0.50 μg/dL in cord blood) than previously investigated levels. Multivariable regression models revealed that there were no associations between maternal blood lead and sNDD-1Y and 2Y and between cord blood lead and sNDD-1Y, 2Y, and 3Y. Although a higher maternal blood lead was associated with a reduced risk of sNDD-3Y (adjusted relative risk: 0.84, 95% confidence interval 0.75–0.94, per 1 increase in common logarithm of lead concentration), there were no dose–response relationships in the analysis using quintiles of lead concentrations. Using a large-scale data set, the present study demonstrated no convincing evidence for an inverse association between levels of prenatal blood lead and neurodevelopment in early childhood. Longitudinal measurements of prenatal and postnatal lead levels are needed to understand the relationship between lead exposure and neurocognitive development.
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