Background: Cortisol has functions on homeostasis, growth, neurodevelopment, immune function and the stress response. Secretion follows a diurnal rhythm that mediates these processes. Our objective was to examine the association between prenatal lead exposure and infant diurnal cortisol rhythms. Methods: We measured infant cortisol rhythms in saliva collected repeatedly over 2 days at either 12 (n = 255) or 18-24 (n = 150) months of age. Prenatal lead exposure was assessed by measuring maternal pregnancy blood lead levels and early postnatal maternal bone lead content. We analyzed age-specific basal secretion and the association between trimester-specific and cumulative lead exposure with a) change in total diurnal cortisol and b) the shape of the cortisol curve across the length of the day. Results: Our results showed age related differences in salivary cortisol secretion and an age dependent association with maternal lead exposure. In age-stratified models we saw an inverse association between lead and cortisol levels in 12-month-old infants and a positive association for 18-24-month-old infants. For the 12-month-old infants 2nd-trimester-lead ≥10 μg/dL was associated with 40 % lower cortisol levels (95 % CI (-57, -16)) and a significant change in the shape of the cortisol curve (p = 0.01), compared to infants with low blood lead levels (<5 μg/dL). Conclusions: Basal cortisol secretion changes with age. Increased early gestation lead exposure alters diurnal cortisol rhythms and the association is modified by infant age, perhaps representing an early maturation of cortisol homeostasis.

Original languageEnglish
Article number124
JournalEnvironmental Health: A Global Access Science Source
Issue number1
StatePublished - 29 Feb 2016


  • Cortisol
  • Epidemiology
  • Lead
  • Prenatal


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