Increasingly, regression models are used when residuals are spatially correlated. Prominent examples include studies in environmental epidemiology to understand the chronic health effects of pollutants. I consider the effects of residual spatial structure on the bias and precision of regression coefficients, developing a simple framework in which to understand the key issues and derive informative analytic results. When the spatial residual is induced by an unmeasured confounder, regression models with spatial random effects and closely-related models such as kriging and penalized splines are biased, even when the residual variance components are known. Analytic and simulation results show how the bias depends on the spatial scales of the covariate and the residual; bias is reduced only when there is variation in the covariate at a scale smaller than the scale of the unmeasured confounding. I also discuss how the scales of the residual and the covariate affect efficiency and uncertainty estimation when the residuals can be considered independent of the covariate. In an application on the association between black carbon particulate matter air pollution and birth weight, controlling for large-scale spatial variation appears to reduce bias from unmeasured confounders, while increasing uncertainty in the estimated pollution effect.


Epidemiology | Statistical Methodology | Statistical Theory