Pros and Cons of Chelation: Autism Therapy and Heavy Metals

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Chelation Autism Therapy: Introduction

Chelation is a controversial therapy that some in the field of alternative medicine prescribe for everything from arthritis to heart problems. It has also been used to treat children on the autistic spectrum.

Originally, chelation was developed to treat cases of heavy metal poisoning, such as a person ingesting a large amount of lead or mercury during an industrial accident. In these cases, a medical toxicologist would employ the therapy, which sends chemicals made from amino acids into the bloodstream. These chemicals latch onto the heavy metals in the bloodstream and move them to the digestive tract, so that they are excreted in urine. Although these cases are extremely rare, they warrant chelation therapy due to the extreme damage that heavy metals can have on the body.

Pros of Chelation Therapy for Autism

Since chelation works well in removing heavy metals, some practitioners have maintained that it can also help cure autism. When chelation therapy was originally suggested as a treatment for autism, proponents pointed at mercury poisoning as a cause or contributor to the disorder. They maintained that vaccines were primarily responsible for the “autism crisis,” and that many autistic children could be cured if they were allowed to excrete the mercury from the vaccines from their bloodstreams. Parents of autistic children presented anecdotal evidence that seemed to indicate how helpful chelation could be, even curing some children of their autistic tendencies.

With time, research showed that there is no correlation between vaccinations and autism, but advocates of chelation think it can still be of value. They still believe that children with autism are more prone to heavy metal retention, but they now put the blame on environmental pollution (such as the emission of mercury from coal plants), mercury levels in fish, and lead-containing toys. In either case, they say the advantages of chelation autism therapy remain the same - the chance to rid autistic children of heavy metals so that they can begin to function optimally and have their autistic tendencies minimized.

Cons of Chelation Therapy for Autism

Opponents of chelation maintain that it can do more harm than good. They brush aside the anecdotal evidence, saying that some children grow out of their autistic tendencies naturally, and that this may have been the case with some of the chelation autism therapy “miracle stories.” In addition, chelation can have devastating effects, especially if practiced improperly. Negative side effects can include a low white blood cell count, anemia, and damage to the liver or kidneys. Even worse, a 2008 article in the Medscape Journal of Medicine listed thirty deaths due to chelation that have occurred over the past few decades.

What causes these risks? Wallace Sampson, a retired professor from Stanford University, believes that chelation can release metals into the bloodstream that were originally safely hidden inside tissue, causing physical problems that did not exist previously. In addition, the chelation process can remove much needed minerals, leaving the body defenseless against some diseases.

Further Research

Further research is needed in order to determine whether chelation autism therapy is worth the risk. So far, only animal studies have been carried out on chelation. These studies have found that chelation worked wonders on the learning capabilities of rats with lead poisoning - but severely damaged the minds of rats that had not experienced lead poisoning.

At the time of writing this article (Jan 2011) the National Institutes of Health says it does not plan on studying chelation autism therapy because it maintains that the studies would not be worth the risk to their subjects.


This post is part of the series: Research About Autism

This series contains several articles about autism research, including causes and treatments of this condition.

  1. Point and Counterpoint: Using Chelation for Autistic Kids
  2. The Pros and Cons of Chelation Autism Therapy
  3. Using Conversation Starters for Kids with Autism
  4. Do Pesticides Contribute to Autism?
  5. Thimerosal and MMR Vaccinations: Is there a Relationship to Autism?