The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently announced that they had sent warning letters to eight groups who were promoting chelation products without prescriptions and with unproven claims of efficacy.
Chelation is a mainstay of many alternative medical practitions, especially in autism. There is a hypothesis that autism is caused by mercury poisoning. Autism symptoms don’t look like mercury poisoning and multiple studies have been performed testing the hypothesis and shown no link. But the idea lives on. Autistics, mostly children, are subjected to chelation “therapy” to remove heavy metals from the body. After over a decade of this practice, there is still no demonstration that chelation does anything to help autistics. There are studies on Peruvian hamsters which are used to support the idea that autism is caused by mercury poisoning. No, seriously, one of the supports for the mercury/autism link is a study on Peruvian Hamsters. Just goes to show how tenuous the “science” backing chelation is.
Here is part of the FDA statement:
Federal regulators are warning eight companies to stop selling so called ‘chelation’ products that claim to treat a range of disorders from autism to Alzheimer’s disease.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says the companies have not proven their products are safe and effective in treating autism spectrum disorder, cardiovascular disease, macular degeneration, Parkinson’s disease or any other serious illness. Some of the companies also claim their products can detect the presence of heavy metals in the body in an attempt to justify the need for chelation therapy.
One of the more vocal organizations promoting the mercury/autism “link” is a group called SafeMinds. So it isn’t a surprise that they would respond to the FDA warnings..
Here is the opening paragraph from the SafeMinds response:
The FDA issued a media release and held a press conference on over-the-counter chelating products. A recording of the press conference was made available this afternoon (recording available at 800-839-7073). FDA issued warning letters to 8 companies promoting over-the-counter nutritional supplements for chelation therapy (HERE). Chelation is a method of removing heavy metals from the body. The FDA warning has no bearing on prescription chelation drugs which are used under the supervision of medical professionals.
“Nutritional Supplements”? How does a chelator count as a “nutritional supplement”? The human body does not produce chemicals like DMSA which are used for chelation. SafeMinds is well aware of the falacy of the “nutritional supplement” argument after the recent debacle over the chelator turned “supplement” OSR, which had to be pulled from production.
So, SafeMinds starts downplaying the fact that chelators are drugs and, as such, should be regulated.
But they quickly change the tune and acknowledge that these are drugs: “The FDA warning has no bearing on prescription chelation drugs which are used under the supervision of medical professionals.”
As I read this, I had to ask myself “Why did SafeMinds chose such imprecise language?” Let me explain:
Assume a medical professional, say a chiropractor or a nutritionist, “supervises” my use of the prescription drug DMSA, but sells the drug to me without a prescription (as these professionals can not write prescriptions). That would fit into the SafeMinds interpretation, but is clearly not the intent of the FDA statement.
Here is an accurate statement: The FDA warning does not have bearing on the use of chelation drugs prescribed by and supervised by a medical professional.
Continuing with the SafeMinds statement:
In its press conference, the FDA implied that chelation products were being used by parents of children with autism without a doctor’s supervision, but on questioning by reporters, FDA representatives were unable to back up the claim with any evidence of use of OTC chelation products by autism parents or of their use without medical supervision. The FDA asserted that the OTC products being promoted were dangerous and could lead to kidney damage, dehydration and death. On questioning by reporters, the FDA admitted that it had received no reports of adverse reactions to the products or to chelation in general, other than 1 death 5 years ago which was due to a medical error and in which a prescription drug was used.
Note that SafeMinds chose their words carefully. They don’t state that the practice doesn’t occur. SafeMinds just states that the FDA didn’t have the evidence on hand of the “use of OTC chelation products by autism parents or of their use without medical supervision.”
Is Safeminds so out of touch with the online autism community that they can’t find groups promoting over-the-counter (OTC) chelators by autism families? The practice is common. Surely SafeMinds members peruse the exhibitor booths at the parent-conventions (like Autism One).
Google search: “how to buy DMSA without a prescription”. Lot’s of hits.
Here is hit #2: dmsachelation.com/autism/. Pretty clear they are targeting autism treatment there, just from the URL. The blurb on Google for this site? “This page IS intended to show you where to buy DMSA without a prescription. You can get DMSA prescribed, however the cost will range from $2-3 per pill. …”
I didn’t capitalize “IS” in that statement, they did. They wanted to emphasize that one could buy chelators without a prescription.
SafeMinds states that the FDA has received no reports of adverse events from chelation in general. I find this odd. The FDA must not follow online autism parent groups such as those on Yahoo. The FDA must not have read transcripts of the Omnibus Autism Proceeding, which included a description of a child who regressed after being given chelation therapy (under the watchful eye of a prominent alt-med doctor). The FDA must not have performed a google search on chelation deaths with site set to CDC.gov.
First hit, “Deaths Associated with Hypocalcemia from Chelation Therapy — Texas, Pennsylvania, and Oregon, 2003–2005“.
When it comes to the question of “why” adverse events are not commonly reported I am again reminded of the OSR fiasco. The company that sold OSR specifically told their clientele to contact the company in case of adverse reactions. No mention was made of contacting the FDA (which can be done here). I guess I could search the websites of the groups that promote OTC chelators to see if they inform their clients of the ability to report their drug/supplements to the FDA. Somehow I feel confident that I would be able to find groups (possibly many or most) do not give that information.
SafeMinds posted their statement on the blog they sponsor, The Age of Autism. Another sponsor of that blog is Lee Silsby, a compounding pharmacy. They list chelators such as DMSA and EDTA under the category “autism treatments” (Specialties | Autism Treatments | Transdermal DMSA Cream, or Specialties | Autism Treatments | EDTA (calcium)). Not under “heavy metal poisoning” treatments, autism treatments.
The Autism Research Institute, a group which promotes much in the way of alternative medicine as therapies for autism, has a chart that is often used to promote chelation. In their survey, they claimed that over 70% of parents reported that their child got better with chelation. The survey has been often criticized as being unscientific and very biased. Even with this biased sample, 3% of parents reported that their child “got worse” with chelation.
A couple side notes are worth mentioning. First, in that survey the ARI list chelation under “Biomedical/Non-Drug/Supplements”. Non drug? Supplement? I doubt the FDA will agree. Second, the ARI survey lists secretin therapy as beneficial for autism. Secretin hit the news in the 1990’s as a potential autism therapy and has since been shown to be no more effective than a placebo. The survey is very, very biased towards “biomedical” treatments.
Surely SafeMinds is aware of this survey. As in, definitely they are aware of it. Just as Safeminds are certainly aware of the child in the Omnibus proceeding who suffered after chelation. But SafeMinds pretend as though there are no adverse reactions. It is disingenuous, to say the least.
SafeMinds ends their statement with this paragraph:
SafeMinds agrees with the FDA that products being promoted as drugs and biologics should have thorough and unbiased assessments for safety and that parents should work with their healthcare professionals when considering health interventions. SafeMinds feels that FDA has tried to cast autism parents in a negative light without any supporting evidence, by implying that autism parents were giving their children dangerous products without medical oversight. Only on questioning by the media did the FDA have to back off from its wild claims. SafeMinds feels the FDA owes the autism community an apology.
Basically, SafeMinds have taken the Human Shield defense. Rather than actually discuss the facts, SafeMinds attacks the FDA for “wild claims” and claims that the FDA owes the autism community an apology.
From the perspective of this autism parent I would say, yes, the FDA owes us an apology: for taking so damned long to address this issue. The abuse of chelation as a “treatment” for autism has been going on for many years. It is about time that the FDA cracked down and made the “wild claim” that a prescription drug should be given by perscription.
Heck, the FDA isn’t even making the “wild claim” that toxicology treatments should be performed by toxicologists. Just someone with a prescription pad.
Why isn’t SafeMinds telling autism families to seek out medical toxicologists to test and treat heavy metal poisoning? The answer is painfully clear. The methods of diagnosis and treatment that groups like SafeMinds promote do not compare to the methods used by those trained specifically to treat heavy metal intoxication.
Should make one pause to wonder.