How It Works
The controversy about using chelation for autistic kids has become front page news in the last decade, especially with the much quoted "autism crisis," but few people truly understand how it is supposed to work. From the Greek word for claw, chelation is a treatment that was historically used to treat heavy metal poisoning. The chelation process consists of introducing a chelating agent into the body, either intravenously, orally, or by injection. The chelation agent then bonds to (or grabs, like a claw) mercury and other metals or toxins in the bloodstream and secretes them out by way of urination. Some practitioners even claim that chelation agents bond to all free radicals, the unstable chemicals that can devastate body function.
The use of chelation for autistic kids is based on one of two premises. The first premise is that the thimerosil (mercury) in vaccines causes autism, and therefore chelation will remove this mercury from the body and restore it to its original function. In recent years, however, evidence against a vaccine-autism link seems to be building, so chelation practitioners rely on a second possibility. Children with autism, they believe, may be more prone to a buildup of metals in the body. Although research has not shown this, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence from parents of children with autism who were "cured" by chelation.
Dangers of Chelation Treatment for Autism
So why is chelation so controversial if so many parents seem to swear by it? Although chelation is one of the few methods touted as a "cure" for autism, it does carry various dangers with it. Some minimal side effects include headaches, nausea, light-headedness, fatigue, and cramps. Many of these side effects are caused by a lack of beneficial minerals in the body. After all, chelation removes these minerals along with the detrimental ones. More severe dangers of chelation, however, include dehydration and kidney failure, both of which can lead to serious complications. It is due to these possible complications that some people believe that chelation can do more harm than good.
History of the Chelation Controversy
In the 1950s, doctors believed that chelation could help to drain calcified plaque from blocked arteries. Later research disproved this claim, but chelation practitioners still tout chelation as being effective in treating conditions as diverse as allergies, stroke, chronic fatigue, and, of course, autism.
A 2003 study found that injecting 221 children with chelating agents caused them to expel mercury in their urine. Taking this as proof that autistic children have too much mercury in their bodies, some physicians began offering chelation. Just two years later, about 10,000 children were undergoing chelation treatment. That year, however, a young immigrant died during chelation due to the use of a detrimental chelating agent. This brought the matter to the public eye, making people question whether chelation worked. In October of 2010, the FDA sent warning letters to eight chelation practitioners, warning them not to market chelation as a “cure" for autistic children.
So where is the research on whether chelation is truly effective? Well, the National Institutes of Health has started an ongoing $30 million trial to see whether chelation works in heart patients. This trial will go through 2012. Although the trial was originally intended to study chelation for autistic kids as well, this is no longer in the plans, due to "no clear benefit" to the kids involved and "more than a minimal risk." Parents of kids with autism hope that additional studies of chelation and autism will help to clear up this matter once and for all.