1Patrick Holford argues that1 “Chelation therapy is a valuable option to consider in advanced heart disease, arterial disease (of legs and neck) and stroke recovery.” Chelation is an effective treatment for genuine heavy metal poisoning (e.g. for workers poisoned through working in the nuclear industry), which needs to be diagnosed through proper lab work. However, it is also often used to treat cardiovascular problems (chelation is claimed to treat hardening of the arteries), autism and similar conditions, and non-existent ‘heavy metal poisoning’, often diagnosed through dubious tests like hair mineral analysis2. For these purposes, chelation therapy is significantly worse than useless: this is a treatment which brings no benefit beyond placebo, and can kill3. It’s worth addressing this now because – due to a number of children and adults killed or injured through unnecessary chelation – this issue is currently getting some4 attention5 in the US health/medical/autism/neurodiversity blogs.
For Patrick Holford “[a]lthough [chelation] is given by medical doctors through an intravenous drip, it is essentially a detox process and is naturopathic in concept”. Holford goes on to recommend a clinic that carries out this treatment, and provide their contact details (which I won’t reproduce here – for reasons that should become clear below, I’m dubious about whether ‘alternative’ chelationists deserve the oxygen of oxygen – I’m certainly not going to give them the oxygen of publicity).
Orac looks at6 the case of Sandy Boylan – a woman in her 50s, killed when the naturopath Donald McBride decided to administer unnecessary chelation therapy. Boylan was (incorrectly) told that high levels of heavy metals caused the aches and pains that were troubling her. Chelation therapy was administered to draw these metals from her blood. However, this therapy for Sandy’s aches and pains killed her7:
chelation also withdraws metals the body needs, including calcium, which can lead to heart failure. Hooked up to the IV, Boylan collapsed and blacked out. She was taken to Salem Memorial Hospital, where she died that day of cardiac arrhythmia due to low calcium resulting from chelation therapy, according to a report by the state Medical Examiner.
Even more upsetting is the case of Abubakar Tariq Nadama8. Abubakar was a relatively healthy five year old autistic boy, being treated for what ‘lead poisoning’ which was diagnosed through horribly shoddy testing9. The treatment – administered in the office of Dr Roy Kerry – killed him. As Orac puts it10:
a five year old child who did not have to die died. He was held down for an IV push, went into cardiac arrest, and died. As we know, the cause of death was cardiac arrest due to a low calcium level, a known complication of chelation therapy.
So, this “valuable…naturopathic” treatment is both ineffective and potentially fatal. While Holford emphasises the importance of ‘number needed to treat11‘ when assessing ‘conventional’ treatments, it is a shame that he doesn’t apply similar standards to ‘alternative’ treatments such as chelation. Pretty much all effective medical treatments carry certain risks; however, ‘alternative’ chelation therapy is wholly ineffective, and the side effects can include death.
When writing about Abubakar’s death, Autism Diva notes that12
if you are reading this at work, or on a bus or a dentist’s waiting room, you might want to wait until you can get somewhere more private before you read the rest. You might get teary eyed or start crying.
There’s something horribly upsetting about the thought of a young, relatively healthy boy being held down to the chair while being injected with the chelation agents that killed him. It’s also dreadful to think that Sandy was killed by a completely pointless ‘therapy’ for her aches and pains.
I just can’t see how any responsible healthcare practitioner or advisor could suggest chelation therapy as an appropriate treatment for anything except properly diagnosed heavy metal poisoning. And I can’t get the image of Abubakar being held down – while those meant to be helping him administered the IV push that killed him – out of my head.
Update: Feb 2009. Chelation is not a risk-free procedure. There are clear indications that popular chelation interventions for children with autism may be contributing to neurological damage. It is long past time for Holford to change his advice and cease to recommend such dubious and dangerous procedures.