BACKGROUND: Low-level lead exposure is widespread and has been implicated as a chronic kidney disease (CKD) risk factor. However, studies evaluating associations of lead dose with newer, potentially more accurate, estimates of kidney function, in participants with a wide range of glomerular filtration rates (GFRs), are scarce. METHODS: We compared associations of blood lead and estimated glomerular filtration rate (eGFR) using the Modification of Diet in Renal Disease (MDRD), Chronic Kidney Disease Epidemiology Collaboration (CKD-EPI) and cystatin C single variable, multivariable and combined creatinine/cystatin C equations in 3941 adults who participated in the 1999-2002 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey cystatin C subsample. RESULTS: Geometric mean blood lead was 1.7 µg/dL. After multivariable adjustment, differences [95% confidence interval (CI)] in mean eGFR for a doubling of blood lead were -1.9 (-3.2, -0.7), -1.7 (-3.0, -0.5) and -1.4 (-2.3, -0.5) mL/min/1.73 m(2), using the cystatin C single variable, multivariable and combined creatinine/cystatin C equations, respectively, reflecting lower eGFR with increased blood lead. The corresponding differences (95% CI) were -0.9 (-1.9, 0.02) and -0.9 (-1.8, 0.01) using the creatinine-based MDRD and CKD-EPI equations, respectively. In participants aged =60 years, differences in mean eGFR ranged from -3.0 to -4.5 mL/min/1.73 m(2), and odds of reduced eGFR (<60 mL/min/1.73 m(2)) were increased for all estimates of GFR. CONCLUSIONS: These results support the inclusion of cystatin C-based eGFR in future lead research and provide additional evidence for environmental lead exposure as a CKD risk factor.