Nephropathy associated with animal, plant, and chemical toxins in the tropics

Semin Nephrol. 2003 Jan;23(1):49-65. doi: 10.1053/snep.2003.50003.


Widespread human exposure to a variety of drugs, chemicals, and biologic products and recent awareness of their toxic manifestations has led to the recognition of toxic nephropathy as an important segment of renal disease in the tropical countries. Tropical nephrotoxins are distinctly different from those seen in the rest of the world and are derived from local fauna and flora or plant and chemical sources. The spectrum of exposure varies from country to country and even from community to community, depending on variations in the distribution of local plants and animal species and prevalent social practices. Acute renal failure (ARF), either alone or in association with liver failure, neurologic abnormalities, metabolic acidosis, disseminated intravascular coagulation, or pulmonary infections is the most common form of presentation. Traditional medicines prescribed by witch doctors (traditional healers) constitute a special class of nephrotoxins among several communities in Africa and Asia. The prevalence of nephropathy caused by traditional medicines is directly related to a combination of ignorance, poverty, lack of medical facilities, lax legislation, and widespread belief in indigenous systems of medicine in rural areas. These medicines are a mix of herbs and unknown chemicals administered orally or as enemas. Clustering of cases after exposure to a particular agent suggests the possibility of a toxic insult. Common animal nephrotoxins are venoms of viper snakes, sea snakes, stinging insects, and raw gallbladder and bile of carp and sheep. Botanical nephrotoxins are encountered both in common edible plants (djenkol beans, mushrooms) and medicinal herbs (impila, cat's claw). Mistaken identification of medicinal herbs by untrained workers and even deliberate trials of toxic substitutes derived from plants frequently lead to renal disease, the most commonly reported being the Chinese herbal nephropathy. Nephrotoxicity caused by chemicals can be secondary to accidental occupational exposure in industrial work places (eg, chromic acid), or after suicidal or homicidal use (eg, copper sulphate, ethylene dibromide, ethylene glycol). Late presentation and multiorgan dysfunction are associated with a high mortality. A high index of suspicion, careful history taking, and an awareness of local practices are essential for proper diagnosis and management of toxic nephropathies in the tropics.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Bees
  • Bites and Stings / complications*
  • Fishes
  • Hazardous Substances / toxicity
  • Humans
  • Nephrotic Syndrome / epidemiology*
  • Nephrotic Syndrome / etiology*
  • Plants, Toxic / poisoning*
  • Prevalence
  • Prognosis
  • Risk Assessment
  • Sheep
  • Snakes
  • Spiders
  • Toxins, Biological / adverse effects*
  • Tropical Climate / adverse effects*
  • Wasps


  • Hazardous Substances
  • Toxins, Biological