Cover story articleChelation therapy

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Chelation therapy is a practice whereby certain substances (usually EDTA or desferoxime) are administered to a patient to "clear them of toxins". The usual claim is that it can treat atherosclerosis. Chelation itself is a chemical term describing a compound or compounds strongly binding to a metal ion. The idea behind chelation therapy is that the "chelator" binds "bad stuff" in the body, and then it is harmlessly excreted. There are a very limited number of situations where "chelation" is used legitimately for heavy metal poisoning; for example, in iron overload states where "deferoxamine" is used as the chelating agent.

Medline, the primary electronic index of medical articles, shows a comparative lack of articles about chelation, suggesting it is not seen as a fruitful and legitimate line of research. Searches for "chelation therapy" show approximately 1500 articles, most of them about genetic iron or copper overload states. A Medline search of "chelation therapy" and "atherosclerosis" returns 22 results. In contrast, aspirin, a proven therapy, gets almost 40,000 hits, and, when combined with "atherosclerosis" gets about 700 hits.

Contents

Claims

EDTA as the tetra-anion

Claims for chelation therapy vary greatly. The most common claim is that it can treat atheroscleosis (the hardening of the arteries that leads to heart attacks and strokes). For example, "Holisticonline.com" states that:

Studies by the National Academy of Sciences/National Research Council in the late 1960's indicated that EDTA was considered possibly effective in the treatment of occlusive vascular disorders caused by arteriosclerosis.[1]

There have also been claims about potential benefits of the use of chelation therapies in the treatment of autism. This claim is disputed by numerous physicians, including Dr. Eric Fombonne, the Director of Pediatric Psychiatry at the Montreal Children's Hospital, saying "...chelation therapies, whereby heavy metals are removed from the body using specific compounds, are not useful in the treatment of autism."[2]

Since there is little data to support their claims, practitioners will often resort to logical fallacies such as the "argument from authority" and to various types of salesmanship.[3]

Cost

Typical Ad for Chelation Therapy

The cost, typically $75 to $125 per treatment, is not covered by most insurance companies,[4] however, practitioners have been reported to misrepresent the reasons for the therapy, stating heavy metal poisoning. This has led to insurance fraud prosecution.[5]

Efficacy

For any medical treatment to be widely accepted, it must be proved safe and effective. For any scientific or medical theory to be taken seriously, there must be a plausible mechanism of action for any observed positive effects. No plausible theories of efficacy of chelation therapy have been proposed.[6] The usual research cited by practitioners was done over 40 years ago and had decidedly negative results: '"At the time of the report, 12 of the 38 [subjects] had died"[7] At that time, the only treatment for heart disease was bedrest and sedatives. Medical science has advanced considerably in the intervening decades.[8] Modern studies of chelation therapy have been done and are ongoing. These studies have shown limited or no efficacy for chelation therapy for atherosclerosis.[9][10][11][12][13][14][15]

Despite lack of positive results, the U.S. government is running a large trial which will be statistically powerful enough to provide more conclusive answers.[16]

There has been evidence of harm from chelation therapy, but no large scale trials have been done, and practitioners are not required to report adverse events.[17]

Chelation therapy and autism

The autism/vaccine link hysteria has led many to claim that mercury poisoning is the cause of autism. Several opportunists have decided to latch onto this movement and the hype surrounding chelation therapy and claim that it can remove the mercury and "cure" autism. Just as with all the other applications, there is no evidence at all that chelation therapy has an effect on autism --- in fact, the evidence goes the other way.[18][19] The primary proponents of this therapy are Rashid Buttar, Mark Geier and David Geier.

Chelation therapy for autism is particularly horrific since it involves the intravenous injection of dangerous chemicals into a person who, by definition, cannot consent to the treatment. Buttar has also stated that he has the most "success" with children under 9 years old, so there are multiple levels of consent issues.[20] The consequences of chelation therapy are not minor either. In fact, in August 2005, a 5 year old autistic boy named Abubakar Tariq Nadama died while receiving his therapy.[21] Roy Kerry, the doctor overseeing Nadama's treatment, is now being sued for using chelation therapy to treat autism.[22]

Postscript

Patients cannot be blamed for seeking help from those who offer it. Harm from these types of therapies cannot be measured only in the harm done by the treatment itself. Atherosclerotic heart disease (ASHD) is a very serious illness, and the advancements in its prevention and treatment have been incredible. If patients forgo standard, proven treatments for patent medicines, the disease will follow its natural course and lead to early death or disability.

Footnotes

  1. http://www.holisticonline.com/Chelation/chel_introduction.htm
  2. http://www.opposingviews.com/arguments/no-link-between-mercury-and-autism
  3. http://www.drcranton.com/chelation/linus_pauling.htm
  4. http://www.quackwatch.org/01QuackeryRelatedTopics/chelation.html
  5. http://www.quackwatch.org/01QuackeryRelatedTopics/chelationfraud.html
  6. http://www.quackwatch.org/01QuackeryRelatedTopics/chelation.html
  7. http://www.quackwatch.org/01QuackeryRelatedTopics/chelation.html
  8. http://www.americanheart.org/presenter.jhtml?identifier=3000843
  9. Shrihari JS. Roy A. Prabhakaran D. Reddy KS. Role of EDTA chelation therapy in cardiovascular diseases. National Medical Journal of India. 19(1):24-6, 2006 Jan-Feb.
  10. Anderson TJ. Hubacek J. Wyse DG. Knudtson ML. Effect of chelation therapy on endothelial function in patients with coronary artery disease: PATCH substudy. Journal of the American College of Cardiology. 41(3):420-5, 2003 Feb 5.
  11. Anonymous. Chelation therapy ineffective as atherosclerosis treatment.Mayo Clinic Health Letter. 20(6):4, 2002 Jun.
  12. Grier MT. Meyers DG. So much writing, so little science: a review of 37 years of literature on edetate sodium chelation therapy. Annals of Pharmacotherapy. 27(12):1504-9, 1993 Dec.
  13. Wirebaugh SR. Geraets DR. Apparent failure of edetic acid chelation therapy for the treatment of coronary atherosclerosis. DICP. 24(1):22-5, 1990 Jan.
  14. McGillem MJ. Mancini GB. Inefficacy of EDTA chelation therapy for coronary atherosclerosis.New England Journal of Medicine. 318(24):1618-9, 1988 Jun 16.
  15. Merril L. Knudtson, MD; D. George Wyse, MD,PhD; P. Diane Galbraith, BN; Rollin Brant, PhD; Kathy Hildebrand, BN; Diana Paterson, BScN; Deborah Richardson, RN; Connie Burkart, BN; Ellen Burgess, MD; for the Program to Assess Alternative Treatment Strategies to Achieve Cardiac Health (PATCH) Investigators. Chelation Therapy for Ischemic Heart Disease.JAMA. 2002;287:481-486.
  16. http://www.clinicaltrials.gov/ct/show/NCT00044213?order=1
  17. Morgan BW. Kori S. Thomas JD. Adverse effects in 5 patients receiving EDTA at an outpatient chelation clinic. Veterinary & Human Toxicology. 44(5):274-6, 2002 Oct.
  18. NCAHF Policy Statement on Chelation Therapy
  19. Mayo Clinic on Chelation therapy and autism
  20. Dr. Buttar has a new protocol
  21. Boy dies during autism treatment
  22. Charges in the Nadama case
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