Chelation therapy is a treatment that involves repeated intravenous (IV) administration of a chemical solution of ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid, or EDTA. It is used to treat acute and chronic lead poisoning by pulling toxins (including heavy metals such as lead, cadmium, and mercury) from the bloodstream. The word "chelate" comes from the Greek root chele, which means "to claw." EDTA has a claw-like molecular structure that binds to heavy metals and other toxins.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved EDTA chelation therapy as a treatment for lead and heavy metal poisoning. It is also used as an emergency treatment for hypercalcemia (excessive calcium levels) and the control of ventricular arrhythmias (abnormal heart rhythms) associated with digitalis toxicity.
Studies by the National Academy of Sciences/National Research Council in the late 1960s suggested that EDTA might be effective in the treatment of arteriosclerosis (blocked arteries). However, most well-designed studies have found that EDTA is not effective for heart disease. In fact, many medical organizations, including the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the American Medical Association (AMA), the American Heart Association (AHA), and the American College of Cardiology (ACC), have publicly criticized and denounced the practice of EDTA chelation therapy for heart disease.
Proponents of chelation therapy for heart disease claim that EDTA, combined with oral vitamins and minerals, helps dissolve plaques and mineral deposits associated with atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries). Most reports about using chelation therapy for heart disease have been based on case studies and a few animal studies that may not apply to people. Also, several large-scale clinical trials published in peer-reviewed journals have found that EDTA chelation therapy is no better than placebo in improving symptoms of heart disease. Some medical experts note that theories about why chelation might help treat atherosclerosis depend on an outdated understanding of how heart disease develops. Finally, and probably most importantly, the safety of EDTA chelation therapy for people with heart disease is not known.
Lead poisoning and heavy metal toxicity
Chelation therapy using EDTA is the medically-accepted treatment for lead poisoning. Injected intravenously and once in the bloodstream, EDTA traps lead and other metals, forming a compound that the body can eliminate in the urine. The process generally takes 1 to 3 hours. Other heavy metal poisonings treated with chelation include mercury, arsenic, aluminum, chromium, cobalt, manganese, nickel, selenium, zinc, tin, and thallium. Chelating agents other than EDTA are also used to clear several of these substances from the bloodstream.
Heavy metal toxicity in humans has been associated with many health conditions, including heart disease, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Alzheimer disease, immune system disorders, gastrointestinal disorders (including irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS), and autism.
EDTA has also been used to treat digoxin toxicity, although most doctors prefer to use other methods. In this case, EDTA helps remove excess levels of digoxin, a medication that is used to treat abnormal rhythms of the heart.
Evidence that EDTA chelation therapy is effective for heart disease is mixed. Proponents believe it may help people with atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) or peripheral vascular disease (decreased blood flow to the legs) by clearing clogged arteries and improving blood flow. However, the few studies that show it may help have been poorly designed, making the results questionable.
The theory that EDTA clears clogged arteries and improves blood flow is based on an outdated model about what causes heart disease. Newer theories include the possibility that EDTA functions like an antioxidant, preventing damaging molecules known as free radicals from injuring blood vessel walls and allowing plaque to build up. In fact, studies suggest that EDTA chelation therapy in combination with oral high-dose vitamins and minerals significantly reduced the occurrence of cardiac events compared to placebo. Other studies suggest EDTA chelation reduces further cardiac events among people who have diabetes, who have already had a heart attack.
EDTA is used in dentistry as a chelating agent for smear layer removal from root canal walls.
EDTA is a synthetic chemical and not found naturally. Because there is concern that EDTA may deplete important vitamins and minerals, EDTA chelation therapy is often given with essential nutrients (including calcium, B vitamins, vitamin C, and magnesium).
There are advertisements for oral chelating agents available on the market, some of which contain EDTA. However, they have not been studied in clinical trials. Some manufacturers promote topical EDTA solutions as well. These also lack substantial research. Speak with your physician.
How to Take It
For the treatment of lead poisoning: A doctor may give EDTA intravenously (IV) in a clinic or hospital. The dose depends on the amount of lead in the child's blood, as well as the child's height and weight. Daily treatment for up to 5 days may be required.
For heavy metal toxicity: EDTA chelation therapy is often given intravenously with calcium, magnesium, and vitamins B and C over a period of 1 to 3 hours. The recommended adult dosage varies depending on the size of the person and the amount of lead or other metal in the body. The amount used would be determined in a hospital setting.
The most common side effect is a burning sensation at the site of the injection. In addition, some people may have an allergic reaction to EDTA. Other serious side effects that have been reported include low blood sugar, diminished calcium levels, headache, nausea, dangerously low blood pressure, kidney failure, organ damage, irregular heartbeat, seizures, or even death.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there have been deaths associated with hypocalcemia (low levels of calcium) from intravenous chelation therapy.
A qualified health care provider will monitor blood pressure, blood glucose, cholesterol, organ function, and other vital statistics during treatment with EDTA. EDTA may lower levels of nutrients such as calcium, zinc, and potassium. Your provider will perform blood tests to monitor vitamin and mineral levels before, during, and after EDTA chelation therapy. Your doctor may recommend supplemental vitamins and minerals, either orally or intravenously.
Antibiotics, Cephalosporins: Animal studies suggest that EDTA may increase the absorption of cefmetazole, an antibiotic in a class known as cephalosporins.
Vitamins and minerals: EDTA chelation therapy may decrease levels of certain vitamins and minerals in the body, including vitamin C, magnesium, iron, and calcium.
Warfarin (Coumadin): EDTA has been reported to decrease the effectiveness of Warfarin. Decreasing the effectiveness of Warfarin can increase the risk of infection.
Insulin: EDTA can decrease blood sugar, as does insulin. Together they may dramatically reduce blood sugar levels.
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Steven D. Ehrlich, NMD, Solutions Acupuncture, a private practice specializing in complementary and alternative medicine, Phoenix, AZ. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by the A.D.A.M Editorial team.
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