Chelation is a medical treatment designed to remove heavy metals when a person is suffering acute toxicity, or poisoning. The treatment is most often applied in a hospital setting since the person suffering toxicity will be in distress and may have organ damage or failure.

Unfortunately, many companies have promoted chelation “therapy” off label to treat a series of medical conditions that the drugs will not help. In these situations, chelation may cause more harm. One of these conditions is autism.

The link between autism and chelation therapy began in the late 1990s when the association between autism and childhood vaccinations began to be promoted. The claim that vaccines contain high levels of mercury that can cause autism has never been proven, and chelation therapy has never been proven to have benefits. In fact, reports of children dying after their parents administered chelation therapy are numerous.

Instead of listening to anecdotal evidence, work with your child’s pediatrician and behavior therapist to manage emotional, mental, physical, and behavioral health. There are evidence-based treatments for autism, and behavior therapy is the place to start.

What Is Chelation Therapy?

Sometimes, heavy metals like lead, mercury, or arsenic collect in the body and lead to poisoning. Copper and iron may also collect in the body if there is too much for the kidneys or liver to filter out.

Chelation is a medical treatment that filters these metals out of the body to reduce or stop damage to organs, involving drugs called chelators, which bind to metals in the bloodstream. Once the medication has bound to the toxin, it is eliminated through urine that is filtered by the kidneys.

Since chelation is an intense medical treatment, the drugs do have side effects. In situations where a person is hospitalized for heavy metal poisoning, the benefits outweigh the risks. People who have acute poisoning from being exposed to mercury, arsenic, lead, and other industrial toxins or metals are in grave danger and need immediate help.

Doctors will only give these drugs to people who have heavy metal toxicity. A urine sample is used to measure levels of heavy metals or toxins in the blood, and a diagnosis is made.

Unfortunately, some organizations or individuals claim that chelation therapy can eliminate “toxins” from the body without the patient needing hospitalization. Chelation therapy has been falsely associated with treating medical conditions, including arteriosclerosis (damaged arteries), painful leg cramps related to blocked or damaged arteries, neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s disease, and reducing or even “curing” symptoms of autism. These are false claims.

There is no cure for autism, and no medical studies have backed chelation’s use for treating anything other than severe metal poisoning. The side effects are dangerous to people who have no diagnosed medical reason to receive this therapy. Be wary of any organization that is promoting chelation therapy as a valid treatment for autism spectrum disorder.

Understanding Chelation Therapy in the United States

In 2007, the National Center for Health Statistics found that 111,000 adults in the United States reported that they used chelation therapy to treat conditions for which the process has not been approved. There were also 72,000 children younger than 18 years old who received chelation therapy to treat various health issues that the drugs had not been approved to treat.

The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warns against using chelation therapy as a treatment for autism. The government agency reports that chelation therapies used outside of hospitals or doctors’ offices come as sprays, capsules, liquid drops, clay baths, and even suppositories.

These are dangerous for many reasons. They are used for conditions that these medications have not been approved to treat. They are also not administered or monitored by a medical professional.

When misused, these drugs have risky side effects. They can remove important minerals from the body. Your organs need a certain amount of metals and minerals, and stripping these can be very damaging.

Reported side effects of using chelation drugs include the following:

  • Hypocalcemia
  • Kidney impairment
  • Death

The use of chelation therapy to treat autism started alongside the anti-vaccine movement. This movement falsely claimed that standard childhood vaccines to protect against measles, mumps, and rubella could cause autism in young children due to the amount of heavy metals, especially mercury, that may be present in the vaccines. This theory has been repeatedly debunked by research studies.

Any organization that is still touting the debunked theory about a link between autism and vaccines is aiming to prey on parental fear. There is no scientific basis for any association between the two.

No Medical Studies Support Chelation Therapy to Treat Autism

Since these claims began in the late 1990s, medical researchers have studied the potential link between childhood vaccinations and autism. There is no causal link.

Young children between the ages of 1 and 4 begin to receive vaccinations if they are healthy. This is also the age range when the first and most distinct symptoms of autism begin to appear. Children are likely to be diagnosed with autism just after they receive vaccines, and this is the only association between the two.

While anecdotal evidence from parents who use chelation therapy supports the process, no medical studies report good outcomes for children. There have been deaths associated with the use of chelation therapy to treat autism symptoms.

A 2009 study found that there was no statistically significant positive behavioral change associated with this therapy, and no signs that heavy metals were being removed from the body in large amounts. Instead, the study found that there were unacceptably high risks for children with autism and no measurable benefits.

A 2015 study attempted to examine any evidence from medical studies on chelation as an autism treatment. They found only one study that used methodology to examine the process. There was also no study examining the link between heavy metal toxicity and autism, which would otherwise support applying chelation therapy to treat this developmental disorder. The study noted that the risks far outweighed any benefits.

Extreme Risks, Including Death

There are no benefits to using chelation therapy to treat anything outside of acute heavy metal poisoning. Again, there have been reports that people who used chelation therapy as an off-label treatment died. In 2005:

  • An autistic British boy had a heart attack associated with chelation therapy.
  • A girl in Texas had a heart attack associated with hypocalcemia from chelation therapy.
  • In Pennsylvania, a 5-year-old boy died from heart damage associated with hypocalcemia caused by chelation therapy.

Chelation therapy is not an appropriate or safe treatment for autism. It will not manage symptoms associated with the condition, and it is more likely to harm your child.

Pursue Other Medical Treatment

There are several recommended treatments that your pediatrician can help you target. Start with behavior therapy. This typically involves working with an applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapist. This professional can develop a treatment plan for your child to build skills that help them improve socialization and communication, the two behavioral areas most autistic children struggle with the most.

ABA therapy is considered the gold standard in autism treatment, as it has been repeatedly shown to benefit children with autism. The earlier this therapy starts, the better.

An accurate early diagnosis of autism means earlier access to treatment services. While ABA therapy can benefit people of any age, the results are generally more dramatic and occur more quickly when the therapy is given at a young age.

You can also work with a nutritionist, speech therapist, occupational therapist, physical therapist, or other clinicians who will support your child’s overall physical, mental, and emotional health. While ABA therapy is often the backbone of treatment, these other treatment services complement ABA well and can result in further development of specific skills.

References

Chelation: Therapy or “Therapy”? National Capital Poison Control.

Be Aware of Potentially Dangerous Products and Therapies That Claim to Treat Autism. (April 2019). United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Vaccines Do Not Cause Autism. (March 2020). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Chelation Therapy. Association for Science in Autism Treatment (ASAT).

Chelation for Autism Spectrum Disorder. (May 2015). Cochrane Library.

Deaths Associated With Hypocalcemia from Chelation Therapy – Texas, Pennsylvania, and Oregon, 2003-2005. (March 2006). Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

British Boy Dies After Chelation Therapy for Autism. (August 2005). Medpage Today.

Treatment and Intervention Services for Autism Spectrum Disorder. (September 2019). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

What Is Applied Behavior Analysis? Autism Speaks.

Father Sues Doctors Over 'Fraudulent' Autism Therapy. (March 2010). ABC News.

Experts Slam NIH Study on Chelation Therapy. (July 2008). Spectrum.

Chelation Therapy: Unproven Claims and Unsound Theories. (November 2013). Quackwatch.

Amazon Removes Books Promoting Autism Cures and Vaccine Misinformation. (March 2019). NBC News.