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Environ Sci Technol. 2018 Aug 7;52(15):8838-8847. doi: 10.1021/acs.est.8b01754. Epub 2018 Jul 18.

Traditional Tibetan Medicine Induced High Methylmercury Exposure Level and Environmental Mercury Burden in Tibet, China.

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Ministry of Education Laboratory of Earth Surface Process, College of Urban and Environmental Sciences , Peking University , Beijing 100871 , China.
Department of Marine Sciences , University of Connecticut , 1080 Shennecossett Road , Groton , Connecticut 06340 , United States.
Key Laboratory of Tibetan Environment Changes and Land Surface Processes , Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research, Chinese Academy of Sciences , Beijing 100101 , China.
Graduate University of the Chinese Academy of Sciences , Beijing 100049 , China.
School of Civil and Environmental Engineering , Georgia Institute of Technology , Atlanta , Georgia 30332 , United States.
Key Laboratory of Geographic Information Science (Ministry of Education) , East China Normal University , Shanghai 200241 , China.
School of Geographic Sciences , East China Normal University , Shanghai 200241 , China.
Chinese Academy of Sciences Center for Excellence in Tibetan Plateau Earth Sciences , Beijing 100101 , China.


Highly elevated concentrations of total mercury (THg) and methylmercury (MeHg) were found in the municipal sewage in Tibet. Material flow analysis supports the hypothesis that these elevated concentrations are related to regular ingestion of Hg-containing Traditional Tibetan Medicine (TTM). In Tibet in 2015, a total of 3600 kg of THg was released from human body into the terrestrial environment as a result of TTM ingestion, amounting to 45% of the total THg release into the terrestrial environment in Tibet, hence substantially enhancing the environmental Hg burden. Regular ingestion of TTM leads to chronic exposure of Tibetans to inorganic Hg (IHg) and MeHg, which is 34 to 3000-fold and 0-12-fold higher than from any other known dietary sources, respectively. Application of a human physiology model demonstrated that ingestion of TTM can induce high blood IHg and MeHg levels in the human body. Moreover, 180 days would be required for the MeHg to be cleared out of the human body and return to the initial concentration i.e. prior to the ingestion of 1 TTM pill. Our analysis suggests that high Hg level contained in TTM could be harmful to human health and elevate the environmental Hg burden in Tibet.

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