Jan 07 2010

Chelation Fraud

Chelation therapy is a legitimate FDA approved therapy for heavy metal poisoning. It uses either oral or intravenous drugs (EDTA – Ethylene-diamine-tetra-acetate) that bind to heavy metals and make them easier to excrete. The treatment is FDA approved for lead poisoning, hypercalcemia, and digitalis toxicity.

However, as discussed in a recent Forbes article, chelation therapy also leads a double life, and at the fringes of established medicine it has been used off label for decades to treat a long list of diseases and disorders. The first target of fringe chelation therapists, such as Dr. H. Ray Evers who was an early proponent, was cardiovascular disease. Dr. Evers won a court ruling in 1978 validating his right as a physician to prescribe off-label medication. However, of interest Dr. Evers in 1986 had his license to practice medicine revoked for gross malpractice.

The claim for chelation and heart disease is that heavy metals cause the build up of plaque on artery walls, and this plaque can be melted away by leaching off those metals with chelation. “Bypass bypass” has been the slogan of proponents of this idea. It would certainly be nice if physicians could perform a lucrative procedure in their office and improve their patient’s health, and even avoid risky and more expensive interventions. Medical doctors (if not heart surgeons) have every incentive to accept and promote the claims of the chelation therapists – except that it doesn’t work.

What we have is a situation in which a small minority of physicians are promoting a therapy for decades without doing proper trials to demonstrate that it is effective for the indications for which they are using it (such as cardiovascular disease). Small preliminary studies show mixed results, and the well-designed studies are negative. Meanwhile, our basic science understanding of cardiovascular disease goes against the presumed mechanisms of benefit from chelation in heart disease. The science, in other words, relentlessly moves against the claims of chelation therapists.

So, having lost the science, they resort to political means to defend and promote their treatment. They formed the American College for Advancement in Medicine – which is really for the advancement of the unscientific uses of chelation. They fight for the right to practice unscientific medicine, and unfortunately they have been successful enough to keep practicing. They call for more research, as if they will change their practice based upon more research, when they haven’t despite decades of science going against them.

In fact, at this point further research into chelation for cardiovascular disease would be unethical, in my opinion and that of many others. That has not stopped the NIH from conducting just such a study (the TACT study) – a decision that was very controversial. We will see what happens when the study is complete. If the study shows a beneficial effect, that would certainly be a surprise and would force a rethinking of the potential for chelation therapy – although by itself would not wipe away all the existing evidence that chelation does not work. It would upgrade the issue to truly controversial, and then more research would be needed to settle the debate.

If it is negative, given the low plausibility and existing negative evidence, that should be the final nail in the coffin of chelation for cardiovascular disease. Practitioners should accept the results (as some promise) and abandon their claims and practice for chelation and cardiovascular disease. Critics predict that this will not happen, however. Believers will find some excuse to dismiss the results – once you abandon science-based medicine, and embrace the dark side of pseudoscience, forever will it control your destiny.

In fact, chelation proponents have been expanding the list of diseases they believe chelation can treat – a common trend. Again – once you abandon a reasonable scientific approach to medicine, you can subjectively validate any claim, and so there is a clear phenomenon of “indication creep” for scientifically dubious treatments. Further, indication creep equates to an expanding market.

The most significant addition to the chelation therapy claim is autism. Alternative practitioners, based upon the failed hypothesis that autism is linked to mercury toxicity, in vaccines or in the environment, have chelated thousands of autistic children. There is no plausibility and no credible evidence to support its use. The NIH has also considered doing a large trial of chelation in autism, but this study was canceled due to criticism. The difference between the cardiovascular study and the autism study, which were equally criticized, is that the autism study would have involved children who cannot consent for themselves. That seemed to tip the balance against the study.

Anti-vaccine alternative practitioners have also expanded the use of chelation therapy for any and all perceived “vaccine injuries”. The most famous such case is that of Desiree Jennings, who was treated by Dr. Buttar for her “dystonia” which he claimed was an acute mercury toxicity from the flu vaccine. The rapidity of her response only served to reinforce the clinical impression that her symptoms were psychogenic, and not due to any neurotoxicity.


The history of the misuse of chelation therapy reflects the broader issue of science in medicine. If you believe that the best science should be used to determine which therapies are safe and effective for which conditions, and that health care providers should be held to at least a minimal standard of care, then you should also be outraged by the story of chelation therapy. It represents a complete failure to protect the public from useless therapies and for the various mechanisms of regulation to provide for a minimal safety net of science-based practice.

What the history tells us is that it is too easy for dedicated proponents to exploit the weaknesses in the system to practice grossly unscientific medicine out in the open.

9 responses so far

9 thoughts on “Chelation Fraud”

  1. tmac57 says:

    What I would like to know is, how do malpractice insurers view the doctors who use chelation therapy for conditions for which it has not been shown to be effective? It would seem like that doctors who use treatments that carry risks but no proven benefits for a condition, are more likely to be sued for malpractice, and should be rated as high risk. Here is a list from the Mayo Clinic of risks that chelation carries :
    * A burning sensation at the injection site
    * Fever
    * A sudden drop in blood pressure
    * Headache
    * Nausea
    * Vomiting
    * Inability to create new blood cells

    Although rare, some people who undergo chelation therapy have permanent kidney damage or failure. Deaths have occurred in some chelation studies.

  2. superdave says:

    At very least the use of chelation to remove plaques can be measured objectively through a CT scan before and after. It would be tough to get a study through an IRB though that contains a risky procedure unlikely to work, and requires two instances of dosing a person with radiation.

  3. CrookedTimber says:

    I was wondering about the risks, thanks for the list tmac57. In addition I believe I read (possibly on this blog) where a patient died of cardiac arrest after chelation therapy. Is there reason to believe that would be a legitimate risk, or was it coincidence?

  4. Death can rarely result from chelation – usually from a heart attack due to rapidly decreased calcium levels.

  5. Draal says:

    The decrease in calcium levels reminds me of when I donated platelets. They add citrate during the return process to prevent clotting. I could feel the drop of my calcium level as a tingling in my tongue and lips. Calcium is bound to collagen. The calcium-deficiency treatment was of course Tums. Therefore, during chelation therapy, I’d imagine that the same applies and CaCO3 is provided when necessary.

    Useless fact: EDTA is used as a food preservative to prevent oxidation and subsequent decoloration due to metal ions.

  6. ncbill says:

    IIRC, Buttar has been prohibited from treating either children or cancer patients by the state medical board.

    I’m sure those were the primary sources of revenue via his chelation treatments, and so explains his desire to promote chelation for alleged “post-vaccine” mercury removal in adults.

  7. Calli Arcale says:

    Another useless fact for Draal — EDTA is also used in a great many soaps and shampoos. Its function there is quite directly as a chelator; it helps precipitate out calcium ions in the water (one of the most common culprits in hard water situations), allowing the soap to work more effectively. It isn’t readily absorbed through the skin, so it’s quite safe in this use.

  8. Sastra says:

    I have seen a booth for chelation therapy in one of the tents at my local county fair. They had large “science-y” displays showing how it removes plaque build-up from your veins, and plenty of slick pamphlets. I’ve also seen booths for chiropractic care, energy healing, reiki, and megavitamins, all set up at various street fairs, shopping malls, or carnivals which I’ve attended.

    I’m trying hard to think of whether I’ve ever seen a booth for something medically conventional. Breast cancer awareness, perhaps, or a hospital — but that’s not quite the same thing. They’re not selling a particular cure or treatment to the consumer.

    This leads to a question: if a medical modality is being promoted at a booth set up between the Kettle Korn and a guy selling vinyl siding — is it pretty safe to assume it’s probably crap?

    Or am I missing some instances of legitimate therapies which are marketed this way?

  9. spinoza prime says:

    A note on the danger of this “therapy”. When a quack practitioner is taking your money and making unsupportable claims about the efficacy of the treatment, can you be 100% sure that the machine is being properly sterilized?

    I know of one case where it was at least conceivable that unwarranted chelation treatment led to hepatitis C. I cannot say that it did in fact do so. It may have been acquired many years prior to this, or it may have been acquired more contemporaneously from an unknown vector.

    I realize that properly used, there is no risk of contamination, but what level of trust should you put in somebody who is peddling this quackery? Just another consideration people should take into account before putting their money and their blood on the line.

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