Persistent organic pollutant exposure contributes to Black/White differences in leukocyte telomere length in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey

Document Type

Journal Article

Publication Date



Scientific reports








Despite racial disparities in diseases of aging and premature mortality, non-Hispanic Black Americans tend to have longer leukocyte telomere length (LTL), a biomarker of cellular aging, than non-Hispanic White Americans. Previous findings suggest that exposure to certain persistent organic pollutants (POPs) is both racially-patterned and associated with longer LTL. We examine whether Black/White differences in LTL are explained by differences in exposure to 15 POPs by estimating the indirect effect (IE) of self-reported race on LTL that is mediated through nine polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), three furans, and three dioxins, as well as their mixtures. Our study population includes 1,251 adults from the 1999-2000 and 2001-2002 cycles of the cross-sectional National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. We characterized single-pollutant mediation effects by constructing survey-weighted linear regression models. We also implemented various approaches to quantify a global mediation effect of all POPs, including unpenalized linear regression, ridge regression, and examination of three summary exposure scores. We found support for the hypothesis that exposure to PCBs partially mediates Black/White differences in LTL. In single-pollutant models, there were significant IEs of race on LTL through six individual PCBs (118, 138, 153, 170, 180, and 187). Ridge regression (0.013, CI 0.001, 0.023; 26.0% mediated) and models examining summative exposure scores with linear combinations derived from principal components analysis (0.019, CI 0.009, 0.029; 34.8% mediated) and Toxic Equivalency Quotient (TEQ) scores (0.016, CI 0.005, 0.026; 28.8% mediated) showed significant IEs when incorporating survey weights. Exposures to individual POPs and their mixtures, which may arise from residential and occupational segregation, may help explain why Black Americans have longer LTL than their White counterparts, providing an environmental explanation for counterintuitive race differences in cellular aging.


Environmental and Occupational Health