The Cart before the Horse: Chelation for Autism
Chelation is all the rage in autism circles these days. I recently received a flier for a local autism conference that listed no less than six speakers who would - so the flier promised - extoll the virtues of chelation and describe the wonders it had performed on previously hopeless cases of autism. As a collector of patent medicine bottles and literature, I found the language in this flier to be eerily familiar.
There were many unsupported assertions that autism was caused by mercury (in the form of thimerosal in vaccines) and there were several glowing testimonials from parents who had seen their children improve or "recover" after chelation. This was all very impressive - on a superficial level - but the same sort of things were said of Lydia Pinkham's Vegetable Compound in the late 1880's. This "remedy" claimed to help all manner of "female complaints" and was also accompanied by testimonials and unsupported assertions.
The purveyors of chelation (and their apologists) claim that chelation will help "cure" autistic children (don't take my word for it - read it here and here). What seems to have gotten lost in the testimonials and assertions is that nobody has yet shown that autism is caused by mercury poisoning! Let me say that again: nobody - nobody! - has shown that autism is caused by mercury!
What the promoters of the autism-mercury connection have managed to show is that mercury is bad for your brain and other parts of your body, a fact that physicians have known for over a hundred years. What they haven't shown is any evidence that mercury - a pretty indiscriminant poison - can cause the collection of signs and symptoms we call "autism".
You see, mercury poisoning is accompanied by motor problems - problems with movement - such as tremor and incoordination. Autism is not. Most autistic people have no tremor and pretty normal coordination.
It appears that the autism-mercury junta has put the cart before the horse. They want us to treat autistic children with chelating drugs - to remove the mercury - before they've managed to demonstrate that mercury causes autism. That's like taking chemotherapy before you check to see if the lump is actually cancer.
Now, the autism-mercury faithful will point to the autism "epidemic" and scream that it all started after the big increase in mercury-containing (in the form of thimerosal) vaccines. Mind you, both the US and England had big increases in autism prevalence starting in the mid 1980's, about the time that the US began recommending more vaccines - many with thimerosal - for children.
However, England only had one thimerosal-containing vaccine during that time, so their children didn't have an increased exposure. Somehow, that didn't prevent the tremendous rise in autism seen in the United Kingdom.
So, we have large and pretty much identical increases in autism in two countries - one in which children's mercury exposure went up and one in which it didn't. And this is supposed to convince us that mercury causes autism? I'm just not convinced.