The outbreak of lead poisoning cases in Flint, Michigan due to lead-tainted water has led to “a flurry of online ‘experts’ promoting dietary supplements for chelation,” according to an article in Consumer Reports.

“Get the Lead Out with Oral Chelation,” reads one online article headline.

So-called chelation supplements are also sometimes marketed for treating autism spectrum disorders and various heart-related conditions including clogged arteries and high blood pressure. But the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is warning consumers against using them.

What is chelation?

In medical terms, chelation is a treatment aimed at removing heavy metals, such as mercury and lead, from the blood in cases of heavy metal poisoning.

A drug called ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid (EDTA) is delivered by IV into the bloodstream. EDTA seeks out and binds to heavy metals as well as other minerals. This creates a compound that leaves the body in the urine, taking the metal and minerals with it.

Chemically speaking, a “chelate” is a compound with a ring structure that contains a metal ion.

All FDA-approved chelation therapy products require a prescription because, as the FDA notes, “they can only be used safely under the supervision of a healthcare practitioner.”

“Chelation” supplements and their claims

Some supplement manufacturers claim their supplements act like — or even contain — EDTA.

“These companies marketing unapproved OTC chelation products commonly target patients with serious and incurable diseases who may have limited treatment options,” notes the FDA. Some products are promoted as an alternative to coronary bypass surgery or angioplasty (since plaque in the arteries may contain calcium, a mineral) or a way to treat Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and diabetes complications.

But they don’t work. “Chelation does not improve objective outcomes in autism, cardiovascular disease or neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s disease,” reads a statement from the American College of Medical Toxicology and The American Academy of Clinical Toxicology as part of the Choosing Wisely initiative.

Andrew Weil, MD, a proponent of natural medicine, seems to agree. His website notes he “is skeptical of claims that chelation therapy is an effective treatment for cardiovascular disease and the many other conditions for which it is promoted. Dr. Weil believes that opting for chelation therapy for heart disease or other serious medical problems can be harmful if it results in the delay of scientifically proven medical treatments, and does not recommend such use.”

Potentially dangerous side effects

Even when used for their intended purpose — treating diagnosed metal intoxication — the Choosing Wisely statement notes chelating drugs “may have significant side effects, including dehydration, hypocalcemia [low calcium levels], kidney injury, liver enzyme elevations, hypotension [low blood pressure], allergic reactions and essential mineral deficiencies. Inappropriate chelation, which may cost hundreds to thousands of dollars, risks these harms, as well as neurodevelopmental toxicity, teratogenicity [causing congenital defects] and death.”

The FDA says it’s concerned people will use these supplements instead of seeking "proven, sometimes essential medical care.” It also warns of serious potential side effects, including dehydration, kidney failure and death.

Marianne has been producing content that informs and inspires for more than 20 years, with a deep focus on bringing readers accurate, actionable advice and helping them live healthier, safer lives. Before launching SafeBee, she was executive editor of Sharecare, the health website and social network. Previously, she developed more than two dozen illustrated consumer health books for Reader’s Digest. Her writing has appeared in numerous outlets including Arthritis Today and WebMD. Her favorite safety tip: Know the purpose of every medication you take and under what circumstances you can stop taking it.