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What is chelation?

Chelation is a way to remove toxins (or chemicals with negative effects) from the blood. The process can have several steps, and one of the key steps is using other chemicals to 'flush out' the system.

Chelation usually aims to remove heavy metals like lead or mercury.

Other terms related to this therapy include DMSA, lipoic acid, clay baths and natural chelating agents.

Who is chelation for?

Although anyone could have chelation therapy, it isn't recommended for children with liver and kidney problems.

What is chelation used for?

Chelation is used to remove toxic chemicals from the blood.

Where does chelation come from?

Chelation therapy has been around for many years as a treatment for heavy metal poisoning. It has been used for autism spectrum disorder (ASD) since the 1980s.

What is the idea behind chelation?

Blood contains several different chemicals in small amounts, but certain chemicals - like mercury - can be poisonous if the levels are too high. Some people think autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is caused by an excess of mercury in the blood, which the child's body can't get rid of naturally. Supporters of this theory believe that removing excess toxins like mercury will remove the cause of ASD.

Supporters of chelation also suggest that the excess mercury comes from immunisation. This is because, in the past, thimerosal (a chemical related to mercury) was used to make some vaccines. It's important to note that thimerosal-based vaccines are no longer used in Australia. Even when they were, the amount of thimerosal was always below the World Health Organization's (WHO) recommended limits.

There's no scientific evidence that mercury is involved in the development of ASD.

What does chelation involve?

There are several stages in chelation therapy.

The first stage involves having an initial test done to identify the level and type of heavy metal toxin in the blood. This test also helps to identify an appropriate detoxification chemical.

The next stage is preparing the person's body for the therapy. This includes:

  • reducing any current exposure the person has to the heavy metal toxin
  • looking at or improving the person's nutritional status
  • ensuring that other chemicals found in the body are at normal levels
  • having blood, kidney and liver tests.

Some of these steps can be complex, time consuming and distressing. For example, a person might need to have dental fillings replaced with another filling material, make dietary changes or take vitamin and mineral supplements.

The final stage involves giving the person the appropriate chemical to 'flush the toxin' from the body. Depending on which chemicals are used, they can be taken orally, injected or administered as a rectal suppository or patch worn on the skin.

Chelation treatment can go on for many months - up to a year in some cases.

Cost considerations

The cost of chelation varies depending on the type of chelation treatment used.

Does chelation work?

Recent reviews of research have found no evidence to suggest that chelation is an effective intervention for autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

There's also some evidence that chelation can cause harm depending on how it's carried out. The US Food and Drug Authority has issued a caution about use of over-the-counter chelation treatment. And in 2008, a large-scale research project on the use of chelation to treat ASD was stopped because of the dangers associated with it.

Who practises chelation?

Some of the drugs used for this therapy can be bought over the counter in pharmacies or health food shops, but the therapy should be administered by a medical doctor. Supporters of this approach also recommend that the person receiving the therapy be tested regularly for any negative outcomes.

Parent education, training, support and involvement

Unless you're actually administering the chelating drugs to your child, there's no specific involvement for parents in chelation therapy.

Where can you find a chelation practitioner?

If you're thinking about chelation, you should talk about its potential benefits and risks with your GP or one of the other professionals working with your child. You could also talk about the therapy with your NDIA planner, NDIS early childhood partner or NDIS local area coordination partner, if you have one.

There are many treatments for autism spectrum disorder (ASD). They range from those based on behaviour and development to those based on medicine or alternative therapy. Our article on types of interventions for children with ASD takes you through the main treatments, so you can better understand your child's options.