Original Research: Bacterial and heavy metal contamination in selected commonly sold herbal medicine in Blantyre, Malawi

Martin Kalumbi

Malawi Adventist University, Malamulo College of Health Sciences Campus, Biomedical Science Department, Microbiology Research Group

Keywords: Herbal medicine, Blantyre markets, Bacteria, Heavy metal, Contamination, WHO guidelines


There has been an increase in use of herbal medicine worldwide. It is either used as a stand-alone or complementary therapy to conventional medicine due to past good experience, poverty and family traditions. In Malawi, there are no regulations governing the supply, acquisition, marketing and quality enforcement of herbal medicine. This compromises its safety thereby exposing consumers to avoidable bacteria and heavy metals leading to various adverse health effects.
Cross-sectional laboratory experiments were conducted to determine bacterial and heavy metal contamination of herbal medicine commonly sold in Blantyre, Malawi. A total of 47 samples which were in three formulations namely liquid, powder and tablet were used in the experiments. 29 samples were used for bacterial limit tests and 18 samples were used for heavy metal analysis. Bacterial contamination was determined by streak plate method and biochemical tests while heavy metals were determined by atomic absorption spectroscopy. Descriptive statistics and t-tests were calculated using Microsoft excel and SPSS software programs.
Twenty out of the 29 samples (68.9%) were contaminated with Bacillus, coagulase negative Staphylococcus, Klebsiella, Enterobacter, Citrobacter and other-Coliform bacterial species. Most isolated microorganism was Citrobacter spp. (30%), followed by Bacillus spp. (25%). Out of 20 contaminated samples, 75% were contaminated with coliforms. From these 75% which were contaminated with coliforms, 93.3% of them exceeded WHO regulatory limit (103 CFU/g for enterobacteria). Although liquid samples had the highest level of bacterial contaminants, the count was not statistically different from other formulations (P = 0.058). For heavy metals, lead and cadmium were detected and 67% of the samples had lead levels exceeding regulatory limits.
Levels of bacterial and lead contamination in herbal medicine from Blantyre markets are far above acceptable limits set by WHO and Canadian guidelines. The use of these herbal medicines is a major risk to the health of consumers.

Journal Identifiers

eISSN: 1995-7262
print ISSN: 1995-7262

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