Increases in risk of breast cancer in successive generations of migrants to the United States from China and rapid temporal changes in incidence rates in China following social and economic changes clearly implicate environmental factors in the etiology of this disease. Case-control and cohort studies have provided evidence that at least some of these factors may be dietary. Iron, an essential element necessary for cell function, has also been demonstrated to have potential carcinogenic and co-carcinogenic activities. Iron overload, which was previously uncommon, has become more common in the United States than iron deficiency and may be increasing in China concurrently with dramatic increases in meat consumption. A case-control study nested in a cohort of women in Shanghai, China, was conducted to evaluate possible associations between risk of proliferative and nonproliferative fibrocystic changes as well as breast cancer and dietary iron intake and plasma ferritin levels. Plasma ferritin levels and reported dietary iron intake were compared in 346 women with fibrocystic changes, 248 breast cancer cases and 1,040 controls. Increasing ferritin levels were significantly associated with increasing risk of nonproliferative fibrocystic changes (OR: 2.51, 95% CI: 1.16-5.45, p trend = 0.04). Similar, but weaker, trends were observed for proliferative changes and for breast cancer. Risk of breast cancer relative to the risk of fibrocystic changes was associated with dietary iron intake in women with nonproliferative fibrocystic changes (OR: 2.63, 95% CI: 1.04-6.68, p = 0.02). In conclusion, this study finds significant associations between iron (stored and dietary) and fibrocystic disease and breast cancer.