Dear Doctor: A friend who was working on his old Victorian home in New Orleans started getting bad headaches. He tested high for heavy metals, and now he’s supposed to do something called “chelation therapy.” What is that?
Dear Reader: Chelation therapy is a treatment that rids the body of heavy metals such as lead, copper, mercury, zinc, arsenic, cadmium and iron.
Although these metals are naturally present in the environment, concentrated amounts become toxic. Since your friend was working on an older home, he may have been exposed to high levels of lead in the original paint. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, there’s a high likelihood of finding lead-based paint in homes built prior to 1978, when a federal ban on lead paint went into effect. When someone is renovating a house that contains lead paint, the sanding and scraping that typically take place create toxic dust, which is easily inhaled or may be accidentally ingested.
Signs of lead poisoning in adults include headaches and abdominal pain. Other symptoms can include tingling and numbness in the hands and feet, confusion or trouble concentrating, exhaustion, high blood pressure, nausea and diarrhea.
If one of a group of blood tests reveals that someone has heavy metal poisoning, a chemical process known as chelation therapy is the preferred method of treatment. It works by introducing certain chemicals into the blood, which have the ability to bind to the toxic metal ions. One such chelating agent is ethylene diamine tetra-acetic acid, a synthetic amino acid commonly referred to as EDTA.
With chelation therapy, a medication binds with the lead so that it is then excreted in urine. A possible side effect of the therapy is a burning sensation at the site of the injection. Less common are headache, nausea, high blood pressure, rash or vomiting. Years ago, when chelation therapy was delivered in high doses, it was linked to more dangerous side effects, like irregular heartbeat or kidney damage.
It’s important to note that chelation therapy is approved by the FDA only for heavy metal poisoning. We mention this because of its use as an alternative therapy for other conditions, including heart disease, autism and Alzheimer’s disease. Studies on using chelation therapy to treat heart disease show minimal benefit, and only in certain cases. It has not been shown to be successful in treating Alzheimer’s. And the American Academy of Pediatrics warns against chelation therapy, saying there's no evidence it’s is effective for autism, and that it can be dangerous.
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