Environmental Metal Exposure, Neurodevelopment, and the Role of Iron Status: a Review

Samantha Schildroth, Katarzyna Kordas, Julia Anglen Bauer, Robert O. Wright, Birgit Claus Henn

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

14 Scopus citations


Purpose of Review: Exposure to environmental metals, like lead (Pb), manganese (Mn), and methylmercury (Me-Hg), has consistently been implicated in neurodevelopmental dysfunction. Recent research has focused on identifying modifying factors of metal neurotoxicity in childhood, such as age, sex, and co-exposures. Iron (Fe) status is critical for normal cognitive development during childhood, and current mechanistic, animal, and human evidence suggests that Fe status may be a modifier or mediator of associations between environmental metals and neurodevelopment. The goals of this review are to describe the current state of the epidemiologic literature on the role of Fe status (i.e., hemoglobin, ferritin, blood Fe concentrations) and Fe supplementation in the relationship between metals and children’s neurodevelopment, and to identify research gaps. Recent Findings: We identified 30 studies in PubMed and EMBASE that assessed Fe status as a modifier, mediator, or co-exposure of associations of Pb, Me-Hg, Mn, copper (Cu), zinc (Zn), arsenic (As), or metal mixtures measured in early life (prenatal period through 8 years of age) with cognition in children. In experimental studies, co-supplementation of Fe and Zn was associated with better memory and cognition than supplementation with either metal alone. Several observational studies reported interactions between Fe status and Pb, Mn, Zn, or As in relation to developmental indices, memory, attention, and behavior, whereby adverse associations of metals with cognition were worse among Fe-deficient children compared to Fe-sufficient children. Only two studies quantified joint associations of complex metal mixtures that included Fe with neurodevelopment, though findings from these studies were not consistent. Summary: Findings support memory and attention as two possible cognitive domains that may be both vulnerable to Fe deficiency and a target of metals toxicity. Major gaps in the literature remain, including evaluating Fe status as a modifier or mediator of metal mixtures and cognition. Given that Fe deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency worldwide, characterizing Fe status in studies of metals toxicity is important for informing public health interventions.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)758-787
Number of pages30
JournalCurrent Environmental Health Reports
Issue number4
StatePublished - Dec 2022


  • Behavior
  • Children
  • Co-exposures
  • Cognition
  • Iron
  • Mediation
  • Metals
  • Modification
  • Neurodevelopment


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