We propose a method for diagnosing confounding bias under a model that links a spatially and temporally varying exposure and health outcome. We decompose the association into orthogonal components, corresponding to distinct spatial and temporal scales of variation. If the model fully controls for confounding, the exposure effect estimates should be equal at the different temporal and spatial scales. We show that the overall exposure effect estimate is a weighted average of the scale-specific exposure effect estimates. We use this approach to estimate the association between monthly averages of fine particles (PM2.5) over the preceding 12 months and monthly mortality rates in 113 US counties from 2000 to 2002. We decompose the association between PM2.5 and mortality into 2 components: (1) the association between "national trends" in PM2.5 and mortality; and (2) the association between "local trends," defined as county-specific deviations from national trends. This second component provides evidence as to whether counties having steeper declines in PM2.5 also have steeper declines in mortality relative to their national trends. We find that the exposure effect estimates are different at these 2 spatiotemporal scales, which raises concerns about confounding bias. We believe that the association between trends in PM2.5 and mortality at the national scale is more likely to be confounded than is the association between trends in PM2.5 and mortality at the local scale. If the association at the national scale is set aside, there is little evidence of an association between 12-month exposure to PM2.5 and mortality.
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