Death to chelation?

Does chelation work?

It's a question I get asked fairly frequently. Although I have never performed chelation, IV or oral, and therefore have no direct experience, my concerns for this purported therapy have included:

1) The concept of extracting calcium from atherosclerotic plaque by removing it first from the blood is absurd. Early chelationists believed that this was the means by which EDTA might reverse coronary atherosclerosis. However, removing calcium from blood would more likely lead to osteoporosis or calcium extraction from bone, since bone is a more ready repository for calcium. Blood calcium levels are also tightly and narrowly controlled; any significant reduction in calcium ("hypocalcemia") can be life-threatening. And, indeed, there have been deaths from hypocalcemia in people receiving chelation.

More recently, chelationists have argued that removal of heavy metals like lead and mercury are responsible for the purported benefits of chelation. And, indeed, blood levels of these heavy metals can be reduced by chelation. That alone may be a benefit. But to then make the leap to say that it also regresses atherosclerotic plaque by the same mechanism has no basis in science.

2) Practitioners associated with chelation tend to be shady. I have seen homeopathic therapies (among THE most ridiculous of concepts), "energy balance" therapies, desiccated organ extracts ("applied kinesiology"), and a variety of other fringe treatments offered by practitioners offering chelation. This doesn't necessarily mean, of course, that chelation is also fringe or suspect, but it tends to be offered by practitioners who engage in generally unscientific, unfounded practices.

The few people I've seen go through multiple courses of chelation (usually 30 or so infusions) have shown no impact on heart scan scores or any other measure of heart disease.

In response to the many questions I receive on chelation, I had been answering that, if we would simply wait for the publication of the NIH-sponsored trial of IV chelation therapy, perhaps we'd know once and for all.

However, in a lengthy criticism, four expert authors argue that the TACT trial to assess chelation study is doomed to failure for an entire list of reasons and should therefore be abandoned. The discussion is available on Medscape Cardiology. (Free sign-in required.)

Why the NIH Trial to Assess Chelation Therapy (TACT) Should Be Abandoned
We investigated the social and the scientific histories of chelation therapy beginning in the 1950s. We examined TACT protocols and consent forms, which, in response to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, the NIH provided to us with curious redactions. We examined the existing RCTs and the numerous case series cited by the TACT protocols. We examined evidence for risks, including information that is not in the standard medical literature. We examined various hypotheses that advocates have offered to explain how chelation "works."

We present our findings in 4 parts. First, we provide a brief history of the use of disodium EDTA as a treatment for CAD. Next, we describe the origin and nature of the TACT. Next, we discuss the evidence for chelation as a treatment for CAD and for atherosclerosis in general, and place it in the context of other proposed treatments that have been ineffective after an initial period of enthusiasm. Finally, we discuss the risks. For each topic, we contrast our findings with relevant statements in the TACT literature, to the extent that such statements exist.

Among the highlights:

--Since the mid-1970s, court documents and newspapers have reported at least 30 deaths associated with IV disodium EDTA, most of it administered by ACAM members.

--Early chelation investigators had chosen the disodium salt of EDTA, reasoning that if it could remove calcium from atherosclerotic plaques, it might shrink them. That notion was soon demonstrated to be invalid. It has largely been replaced by a "toxic heavy metals" antioxidant hypothesis, which is based on the potential for metal ions to produce free radical damage. Chelationists now cite "removing heavy metals" as the basis for their claim that chelation is effective for approximately 70 conditions, ranging from schizophrenia and autism to cancer. This provides them with numerous reasons to ignore any trial that finds chelation ineffective for CAD.

--Biochemical literature, either not cited or misrepresented in the TACT protocols, has demonstrated that the heavy metals hypothesis is implausible. Antithetically, it also demonstrates that the chelation mixture used in the TACT has pro-oxidant effects in vitro.

--In our opinion, TACT literature -- including 2 versions of the protocol, the consent form, information posted on the NCCAM Web site, and 2 editorials co-authored by the PI -- has misrepresented chelation, its risks, and the facts of the study. It has exaggerated the value of supportive case series, not only by ignoring evidence of bias and incompetence, but by misrepresenting citations and reporting erroneous data. It has minimized the dangers, both by understatements and by omissions of specific, published complications. It has not acknowledged the deaths mentioned above. It has repeatedly conflated disodium EDTA and a different drug, calcium-sodium EDTA.

--The TACT includes nearly 100 "chelation site" co-investigators who, in our opinion, are unsuitable to care for human subjects or to report trial data. Most espouse implausible health claims while denigrating proven methods; several have been disciplined, for substandard practices, by state medical boards; several have been involved in insurance fraud; at least 3 are convicted felons. Several were members of the ACAM or GLACM IRBs mentioned above. Few appear to have real expertise, required by TACT literature, in treating patients with CAD or in conducting clinical trials. Most continue to promote chelation while the TACT is in progress, contrary to good science, to human studies ethics, and to US Federal Code.

While the criticism itself does not prove the point one way or another, as a clinical trial should, anyone contemplating chelation therapy would be well-advised to read the document first. Another reference: EDTA chelation therapy for cardiovascular disease: a systematic review.

The authors of the exhaustive discussion are:
Kimball C. Atwood IV, MD, Anesthesiologist, Newton-Wellesley Hospital, Newton, Massachusetts; Assistant Clinical Professor, Tufts University School of Medicine, Boston, Massachusetts; Associate Editor, Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine
Author's email:

Elizabeth Woeckner, AB, MA, President, CIRCARE (Citizens for Responsible Care and Research), Columbia, Maryland

Robert S. Baratz, MD, DDS, PhD, Medical Director, South Shore Health Center, Inc., Braintree, Massachusetts; Assistant Clinical Professor of Medicine, Boston University School of Medicine, Boston, Massachusetts; President, National Council Against Health Fraud, Inc.

Wallace I. Sampson, MD, Clinical Professor of Medicine (Emeritus), Stanford University, Stanford, California; Senior Attending Physician and formerly Chief of Medical Oncology, Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, San Jose, California; Editor-in-Chief, Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine

The authors provided the following disclosures:

Disclosure: Kimball C. Atwood IV, MD, has disclosed no relevant financial relationships in addition to his employment.

Disclosure: Elizabeth Woeckner, AB, MA, has disclosed that she has received compensation for consulting in civil litigation and professional disciplinary actions.

Disclosure: Robert S. Baratz, MD, DDS, PhD, has disclosed that he has been retained by state licensing boards, the Office of the US Attorney, and plaintiff counsel as an expert in disciplinary proceedings and litigation with regard to chelation therapy and associated matters. He is compensated only for his time and has no commercial interest in the outcome of the proceedings or litigation.

Disclosure: Wallace I. Sampson, MD, has disclosed no relevant financial relationships in addition to his employment.

Comments (5) -

  • Rita.

    5/19/2008 10:17:00 AM |

    Vitamins A and K2 help the body put calcium where it belongs--in bones and teeth. Vit D helps in absorbtion but the other fat solubles assist in proper incorporation away from arteries and soft tissues.

  • Jeffrey Dach MD

    5/19/2008 10:38:00 AM |

    For a more balanced view of EDTA chelation for heart disease, see the Toledo Cardiologist, James C. Roberts MD FACC

    Roberts is a practicing invasive cardiologist.  He lectures extensively on his clinical success with Phosphatidylcholine(IV or in Liposomal Oral Format with EDTA):  Reverse Cholesterol Transport and Metal Detoxification.  A DVD of his lectures is available which describes considerable clinical success with oral EDTA.

    Regarding the reference: "EDTA chelation therapy for cardiovascular disease: a systematic review".  The authors of this hatchet job make their living by denouncing chelation therapy indicating political economic motivations.  The alternate information presenting studies showing benefit was not presented.  We find the same type of denouncement in the medical literature for all types of natural therapies including the recent meta-analysis showing that vitamins increase mortality:

    Mortality in Randomized Trials of Antioxidant Supplements,Goran Bjelakovic, MD, JAMA 2007;297:842-857.

    For more on this see:

    My Vitamins Are Killing Me!

    Jeffrey Dach MD

  • Anonymous

    5/21/2008 9:56:00 PM |

    Rita, how much K2 would you recommend someone take and as I believe there are a number of different subsets of K2 which one or brand would you recommend?

  • jpatti

    6/4/2008 4:32:00 PM |

    I think chelation is silly, but on the other hand, I'd rather be a subject in this study than in the one where they wanna do prophylactic bypasses on diabetics.

    As for the K2 question, I recommend Twinlab D3/K2 dots.  I don't believe anyone knows how much K2 is ideal yet, so I just dose them to my D3 serum levels and take the K2 that comes along with them.

  • kenneth

    2/25/2011 5:14:57 PM |

    chelationists=devils workers