Although most teratogens are suspected to act early in the first trimester of pregnancy, birth defects monitoring programs and etiologic studies usually use residence at birth as a proxy measure for residence in the first trimester in searching for environmental teratogens. Because of the high mobility of the U.S. population, residence misclassification can potentially alter inferences concerning environmental teratogens. To evaluate this potential bias, data from the population-based Maryland Birth Defects Reporting and Information System were analyzed. In 1984, the system ascertained 295 infants with one or more of 12 sentinel defects. Of these cases, 59 (20%) mothers reported they have changed address between the time of conception and the time of birth, and 22 have moved to a different county. The residential mobility rate varied by demographic variables and was highest among white women, in the age group 20-24 years. If residence at birth is used as a screening test for residence at conception, it can be shown that in the presence of an environmental teratogenic exposure, misclassification of exposure increases with increasing mobility rate, and population exposure frequency. Such misclassification tends to weaken associations between residence and birth defects and may lead to missing environmental teratogens. This analysis emphasizes the need to use residence information early in pregnancy rather than exclusively at birth.
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