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Lethal critical body residues as measures of Cd, Pb, and Zn bioavailability and toxicity in the earthwormEisenia fetida

The Original Article was published on 01 March 2003



Earthworm heavy metal concentrations (critical body residues, CBRs) may be the most relevant measures of heavy metal bioavailability in soils and may be linkable to toxic effects in order to better assess soil ecotoxicity. However, as earthworms possess physiological mechanisms to secrete and/or sequester absorbed metals as toxicologically inactive forms, total earthworm metal concentrations may not relate well with toxicity.


The objectives of this research were to: i) develop LD50s (total earthworm metal concentration associated with 50% mortality) for Cd, Pb, and Zn; ii) evaluate the LD50 for Zn in a lethal Zn-smelter soil; iii) evaluate the lethal mixture toxicity of Cd, Pb, and Zn using earthworm metal concentrations and the toxic unit (TU) approach; and iv) evaluate total and fractionated earthworm concentrations as indicators of sublethal exposure.


Earthworms (Eisenia fetida (Savigny)) were exposed to artificial soils spiked with Cd, Pb, Zn, and a Cd−Pb−Zn equitoxic mixture to estimate lethal CBRs and mixture toxicity. To evaluate the CBR developed for Zn, earthworms were also exposed to Zn-contaminated field soils receiving three different remediation treatments. Earthworm metal concentrations were measured using a procedure devised to isolate toxicologically active metal burdens via separation into cytosolic and pellet fractions.

Results and Discussion

Lethal CBRs inducing 50% mortality (LD50, 95% CI) were calculated to be 5.72 (3.54–7.91), 3.33 (2.97–3.69), and 8.19 (4.78–11.6) mmol/kg for Cd, Pb, and Zn, respectively. Zn concentrations of dead earthworms exposed to a lethal remediated Zn-smelter soil were 3-fold above the LD50 for Zn and comparable to earthworm concentrations in lethal Zn-spiked artificial soils, despite a 14-fold difference in total soil Zn concentration between lethal field and artificial soils. An evaluation of the acute mixture toxicity of Cd, Pb, and Zn in artificial soils using the Toxic Unit (TU) approach revealed an LD50 (95% CI) of 0.99 (0.57–1.41) TU, indicating additive toxicity.


Total Cd, Pb, and Zn concentrations in earthworms were good indicators of lethal metal exposure, and enabled the calculation of LD50s for lethality. The Zn-LD50 developed in artificial soil was applicable to earthworms exposed to remediated Zn-smelter soil, despite a 14-fold difference in total soil Zn concentrations. Mixture toxicity evaluated using LD50s from each single metal test indicated additive mixture toxicity among Cd, Pb, and Zn. Fractionation of earthworm tissues into cytosolic and pellet digesis yielded mixed results for detecting differences in exposure at the sublethal level.

Recommendation and Outlook

CBRs are useful in describing acute Cd, Pb, and Zn toxicity in earthworms, but linking sublethal exposure to total and/or fractionated residues may be more difficult. More research on detoxification, regulation, and tissue and subcellular partitioning of heavy metals in earthworms and other invertebrates is needed to establish the link between body residue and sublethal exposure and toxicity.

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Correspondence to Jason M. Conder.

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Conder, J.M., Lanno, R.P. Lethal critical body residues as measures of Cd, Pb, and Zn bioavailability and toxicity in the earthwormEisenia fetida . UWSF - Z Umweltchem Ökotox 15, 151 (2003).

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