Chelation therapy is a popular and often effective therapy used to treat autistic children and people suffering from environmental illnesses. New research proves its effectiveness but warns of the dangers of the therapy when used inappropriately.
Research carried out at Cornell University in the United States and published in a recent issue of Environmental Health Perspectives shows that chelation therapy can significantly reduce learning and behavioral problems that result from lead exposure. The researchers warn however that when no lead is present in the body, chelation therapy can actually cause similar symptoms to lead poisoning.
Chelation therapy, pronounced "kee-ley-shun", is a treatment aimed at removing toxic heavy metals from the body that may be causing or contributing to disease. The therapy uses specific chemicals, known as chelating agents or chelators, that are able to bind to heavy metals and carry them out of the body.
Chelating agents are typically given orally or intravenously. These days either DMSO or DMPS (or brand name derivatives) are typically used, although EDTA was for a long time the chelator of choice and is still widely used. In conventional medicine, chelation therapy is used for acute heavy metal poisoning from lead, mercury, arsenic, and other heavy metals. These metals are highly toxic and can cause severe damage to every organ system in the body. More recently chelation therapy has become popular for the treatment of autism and environmental illnesses such as chronic fatigue syndrome, multiple chemical sensitivity, and Gulf War Syndrome, in which chronic lower level poisoning with heavy metals, amongst other factors, is suspected of contributing to the patients illness.
It is these uses of chelation therapy for which these new research findings will re-enforce the need for caution. When heavy metals are present chelation therapy is effective at removing them and produces strong clinical improvements in a patients symptoms. When heavy metals are not present however, chelation therapy may actually worsen the patients condition. The research therefore highlights the need for proper evaluation before chelation therapy is undertaken.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in the US recommends chelation therapy only for children whose blood lead levels exceed 45 micrograms per deciliter but it is increasingly being used at much lower concentrations, due to concerns about lasting complications with even slightly elevated blood lead levels. This is also true for other heavy metals such as mercury.
Removing lead from the body as quickly as possible is very important to prevent or minimize lasting damage to a childs developing brain. High-lead exposure from sources such as peeling lead-based paint can lead to coma, convulsions and even death. At lower levels, lead exposure is known to cause attention deficits, behavioural problems, and difficulty regulating emotions and can lower IQ scores at a rate of about one IQ point per microgram/deciliter of exposure.
Barbara Strupp, Cornell associate professor of nutritional sciences and of psychology and the senior author of the study, has stated that to her knowledge this is the first published study to show that chelation therapy can improve learning and behavioural problems associated with lead exposure. She notes that there has been a serious lack of research into the effectiveness of chelation therapy for improving these kinds of symptoms. This study would appear to vindicate the use of the therapy for children exposed to lead and other heavy metals, and perhaps autism, but only when used with caution. Strupp personally feels that the research raises concerns about the safety of chelation therapy for autistic children due to the findings of negative consequences when heavy metals aren't actually present.
For the study, Strupp and her team used a drug called succimer which is commonly used to treat lead poisoning. Succimer is the drug of choice because it can be given orally on an outpatient basis, and it has potentially less side-effects due to it leaching less zinc, iron and other essential minerals out of the body.
The study was conducted on rats because they have similar mental and behavioral responses to humans when exposed to lead. The rats were split into three separate groups with the first being exposed to moderate amounts of lead, the second exposed to high levels of lead, and the third group acted as the control, being exposed to no lead at all. Following the exposures, the rats were then treated with either succimer or placebo. To evaluate the effects of the chelation therapy with succimer, the researchers then conducted automated tests over a six month period on the rats' attention, memory and abilities to learn and regulate emotions.
The results were clear. The rats in the moderate-lead exposure group showed great improvement from the chelation therapy with their test results being virtually indistinguishable from the non-exposed control test results. Rats exposed to higher lead levels showed benefits in the emotional symptoms, behaving similarly to the control group in this area after treatment. The chelation therapy with succimer only slightly improved their learning abilities however.
Certainly the most unexpected result came from the group that was not exposed to lead. When these rats were given the chelating agent the research team found that they had lasting cognitive and emotional deficits that were as widespread and large as rats that were exposed to high levels of lead.
So how could chelation therapy actually cause symptoms similar to the heavy metal poisoning it is designed to treat? The likely answer is that chelation therapy, in the absence of toxic heavy metals, actually strips the body of essential minerals such as zinc, calcium, magnesium, and iron, instead. These minerals, and many others, are essential for countless enzyme systems throughout the body, including many involved in the production and regulation of neurotransmitters in the brain. One way in which heavy metals cause illness is by replacing the essential minerals, getting in their way, and stopping them from doing their jobs. The same symptoms would therefore arise if deficiencies of these minerals occur due to chelation therapy pulling them from the body when heavy metals are not present.
So this research is very important for two reasons. It proves that chelation therapy when used appropriately is very effective at removing lead from the body and reducing associated cognitive and emotional symptoms. But also show that careful evaluations are required to discover if a potential patient is actually harbouring heavy metals before any treatment should be given.
People suffering from autism and other environmental illnesses are often found to have heavy metals as a factor in their illness and often try chelation therapy. Potential sources of heavy metals are amalgam dental fillings containing mercury, thimerosal (mercury) in childhood vaccinations, meaty fish such as tuna which also contain mercury, and cigarette smoke which contains cadmium amongst countless over toxins. Lead exposure can come from lead paints, contaminated water supplies, and vehicle fuel in countries where leaded fuel has not yet been phased out.
Anecdotal reports suggest that chelation therapy is an effective treatment in a lot of cases and the research at Cornell appears to back that up. If you are considering chelation therapy yourself, or for your autistic child, the research highlights the need for caution. Make sure the doctor runs comprehensive lab tests to check for heavy metals, and also evaluates potential exposures you or your child may or may not have had in the past, before going ahead with any therapy. Blood tests are considered much more reliable than hair analysis by most experts to determine heavy metal levels in the body. It is also a good idea to monitor levels of essential minerals during and after the treatment period. Many doctors in the field of environmental medicine often prescribe mineral supplements for their patients to offset any potential loss of essential minerals from the chelation therapy.