Exploring telomere length in mother-newborn pairs in relation to exposure to multiple toxic metals and potential modifying effects by nutritional factors

BMC Med. 2019 Apr 11;17(1):77. doi: 10.1186/s12916-019-1309-6.


Background: The uterine environment may influence telomere length at birth, which is essential for cellular function, aging, and disease susceptibility over the lifespan. However, little is known about the impact of toxic chemicals on early-life telomeres. Therefore, we assessed the potential impact of multiple toxic metals on relative telomere length (rTL) in the maternal blood, cord blood, and placenta, as well as the potential modifying effects of pro-oxidants.

Method: In a mother-child cohort in northern Argentina (n = 169), we measured multiple toxic metals in the maternal blood or urine collected during late pregnancy, as well as the placenta and cord blood collected at delivery, using inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (ICP-MS). We assessed associations of log2-transformed metal concentrations with rTL, measured in maternal and cord blood leukocytes and the placenta by real-time PCR, using multivariable-adjusted linear regression. Additionally, we tested for modifications by antioxidants (zinc, selenium, folate, and vitamin D3).

Results: Exposure to boron and antimony during pregnancy was associated with shorter maternal rTL, and lithium with longer maternal rTL; a doubling of exposure was associated with changes corresponding to 0.2-0.4 standard deviations (SD) of the rTL. Arsenic concentrations in the placenta (n = 98), blood, and urine were positively associated with placental rTL, about 0.2 SD by doubled arsenic. In the cord blood (n = 88), only lead was associated with rTL (inversely), particularly in boys (p for interaction 0.09). Stratifying by newborn sex showed ten times stronger association in boys (about 0.6 SD) than in girls. The studied antioxidants did not modify the associations, except that with antimony.

Conclusions: Elevated exposure to boron, lithium, arsenic, and antimony was associated with maternal or newborn rTL in a tissue-specific, for lead also sex-specific, manner. Nutritional antioxidants did not generally influence the associations.

Keywords: Antimony; Arsenic; Boron; Early life programming; Lead; Lithium; Nutrients; Telomeres; Zinc.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Antioxidants / administration & dosage*
  • Argentina / epidemiology
  • Child
  • Cohort Studies
  • Diet
  • Environmental Exposure / analysis*
  • Environmental Exposure / prevention & control
  • Female
  • Fetal Blood / drug effects
  • Fetal Blood / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Male
  • Maternal Exposure* / statistics & numerical data
  • Maternal Nutritional Physiological Phenomena* / drug effects
  • Maternal-Fetal Exchange / drug effects
  • Maternal-Fetal Exchange / genetics
  • Metals, Heavy / analysis
  • Metals, Heavy / blood
  • Metals, Heavy / toxicity*
  • Metals, Heavy / urine
  • Mothers
  • Placenta / drug effects
  • Placenta / metabolism
  • Pregnancy
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects / chemically induced
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects / epidemiology
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects / genetics
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects / prevention & control
  • Telomere / drug effects
  • Telomere / physiology*
  • Telomere Homeostasis / drug effects
  • Telomere Homeostasis / physiology*
  • Young Adult


  • Antioxidants
  • Metals, Heavy