Refined assessment of heavy metal-associated health risk due to the consumption of traditional animal medicines in humans

  • Tian-Tian Zuo
  • Yao-Lei Li
  • Huai-Zhen He
  • Hong-Yu Jin
  • Lei Zhang
  • Lei Sun
  • Fei Gao
  • Qi Wang
  • Yuan-Jun Shen
  • Shuang-Cheng MaEmail author
  • Lang-Chong HeEmail author


Little is known about the extent of heavy metal accumulation in traditional Chinese medicines (TCMs). In this study, the levels of lead (Pb), cadmium (Cd), arsenic (As), and mercury (Hg) in traditional animal medicines were monitored using inductively coupled plasma mass spectroscopy (ICP-MS). Additionally, for the first time, a heavy metal risk assessment strategy was used to evaluate the potential risks of traditional animal medicines by calculating estimated daily intake (EDI), target hazard quotient (THQ), and cancer risk (CR). To obtain a refined risk assessment, the frequency of exposure to traditional animal medicines was determined from questionnaire data, and the safe factor for TCM was applied. Based on the standard levels for leech, it was found that earthworm, hive, scorpion, and leech accumulated high levels of heavy metals. The combined THQ (cTHQ) values indicated that ingestion of most traditional animal medicines would not pose a risk to the health of either male or female human beings. However, it was indicated that attention should be paid to the potential risk associated with cicada slough, earthworm, scorpion, turtle shells, and hive. Among heavy metals, As and Hg contributed to a major extent to the risk to human health. The CR assessment for Pb and As indicated that, with the exception of earthworm, the cancer risk was less than the acceptable lifetime risk for both males and females. Owing to the higher body weight, both THQ and CR were generally lower for males than for females.


Heavy metals Risk assessment Traditional animal medicine Estimated daily intake (EDI) Target hazard quotient (THQ) Cancer risk (CR) 



Traditional Chinese Medicines




lifetime cancer risk


cancer slope factor


estimated daily intake


inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry


Pharmacopoeia of the People’s Republic of China


target hazard quotient


combined target hazard quotient


Authors’ contributions

SCM and HYJ designed the study. TTZ and YLL conducted the experiments. TTZ analyzed the data. TTZ wrote the manuscript. LCH, SCM, HZH, LZ, LS, FG, QW, and YJS revised the manuscript. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

Funding information

This study was supported by the National Major Scientific and Technological Special Project for “Significant New Drugs Development” (2014ZX09304307-002) and Project for Medicine and Medical Instruments Review and Approval System Reform (ZG2016-1).

Compliance with ethical standards

Competing interests

The authors declare that they have no competing interests.

Ethics approval and consent to participate

Not applicable.

Consent for publication

Not applicable.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Tian-Tian Zuo
    • 1
    • 2
  • Yao-Lei Li
    • 2
  • Huai-Zhen He
    • 1
  • Hong-Yu Jin
    • 2
  • Lei Zhang
    • 3
  • Lei Sun
    • 2
  • Fei Gao
    • 2
  • Qi Wang
    • 2
  • Yuan-Jun Shen
    • 4
  • Shuang-Cheng Ma
    • 2
    Email author
  • Lang-Chong He
    • 1
    Email author
  1. 1.Xi’an Jiaotong UniversityXi’anChina
  2. 2.National Institutes for Food and Drug ControlBeijingChina
  3. 3.China National Center for Food Safety Risk AssessmentBeijingChina
  4. 4.College of PharmacyUniversity of Rhode IslandSouth KingstownUSA

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