Saturday, July 09, 2005

The Cart before the Horse: Chelation for Autism

I don't intend to let autism become my idee fixe, but it is such a fertile field for psuedoscience and fuzzy-headed thinking that I have decided to frolic in it for a while. It is, as the military folks like to say, a "target-rich environment." So, let the games begin!

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.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Patent remedies for autism?

Sure, why not. My favorite promotion is by JB Handley where he says that Rashid Buttars non chelating chelation treatment "is gentle enough to use every other day".

I picture him, JB, saying this with a bottle of Buttar cream up next to his cheek and stroking the side of the bottle with the back of the fingers of his other hand.

One wonders how much money Mr Investment-man Handley has invested in Buttar.

Did you read the article in the July Pediatrics about the predictability of trajectories of autistic kids, that some are just going to become less "autistic"... at least that's how I read it.

I skimmed through it. He makes the point that people are ripping off parents because autism makes it so easy to do that (so long as the parents are rich to begin with).


10 July, 2005 16:21  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have been known to deal with this on a disability listserv I participate in. I have made it known that I believe that dumping MORE chemicals in a kid for little reason is a bad idea. I usually reiterate that the limited money a family with a disabled child has would be better spent on good neurodevelopmental therapy instead of the "fad of the year" treatment (over the years it has included various oils, supplements, cranial sacral therapy, variations of Doman/Delcato patterning and listening therapies). One fellow skeptic on the listserv has corresponded that she knows of a mother who is skipping all the early intervention provided by her school district and even the FREE speech therapy provided in her county to buy expensive oral chelators for her child.

Anyway, here is part of an email I received early last year when I pointed out that putting chelators in a kid was not a good idea (this was before the Buttar Cream became touted), and that thimerosal cannot be the ONLY cause (my son had seizures, another child near his age has this disability due to barely surviving meningitis from the actual Hib disease):

"We get into this argument everytime you start writing about mercury. I just returned from the DAN! conference where about 1000 people heard many doctors and researchers talk of the problems caused by thimerisol. There is a lot of research showing that it is causing our autism epidemic. You can beleive what you want but please don't stop people from researching vaccines and thimerisol before vaccinating their kids. People like you are dangerous. I just wish someone had educated me on the possible problems of vaccinations before i had my son vaccinated. He is now autistic. The Autism Research Institute is a REAL place and you are showing your ignorance by your statement. It is difficult enough to be a parent of an autistic child but to hear others treat us like we are spewing garbage is very upsetting. We are talking about the truth and soon it will proven."

11 July, 2005 14:24  
Blogger Prometheus said...

The thing about the DAN! movement and others of its ilk are that they want people to hear only one side of the argument - theirs!

What I cannot fathom is why people would not want to hear the data that shows that autism IS NOT caused by thimerosal. From what is currently available, it is painfully clear that thimerosal cannot be more than a minority cause of autism - if it is a cause at all!


11 July, 2005 14:53  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would like to add that the listserv I participate on is for speech/communication disability, NOT autism! Though lately it seems that parents of PDD and Asperger kids have taken up much of the board. The rest of us with plain old boring kids with just specific speech/language issues are fading into the background. sigh

11 July, 2005 15:22  
Blogger Autism Diva said...

an old fashioned image of mercury

14 July, 2005 01:26  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Most autistic people have no tremor and pretty normal coordination."

Actually, most autistic kids that I know have problems with coordination. I had no idea this was related to mercury, however.

27 July, 2005 16:24  
Blogger Prometheus said...

In response to Anonymous:

"...problems with coordination..." is like saying "skin problems" - there are many different types of coordination "problems". However, mercury poisoning has a very specific type, including a tremor. I have not yet seen "tremor" listed as a common symptom in autism.

This is the same sort of comparison (e.g. "ataxia" is morphed into "coordination problems") that is all through that ridiculous article, "Autism: a novel form of mercury poisoning" (Bernard S, et al. Med Hypotheses. 2001 Apr;56(4):462-71). In it, "pressured and tangential speech" (a symptom of mercury poisoning) becomes "language difficulties" (a symptom of autism and two million other disorders).


27 July, 2005 17:12  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Perhaps it is simply vaccines in general which do this? There are a litany of other toxic ingredients, fillers and adjuvants found in vaccines: Aluminum, Neomycin, Formaldyhyde, Methanol, our friend Thimerosal, not to mention the strange combinations of DNA, live and dead viruses, stealth viruses and other undectable pathogens.

I personally do not believe thimerosal is the clincher in the autism epidemic. But it could be! We simply don't know.

But it makes perfect sense to try and chelate a toxic metal out of the body of your child who has been poisoned and somehow stricken autistic by what is very likely vaccines, by whatever action thereby.

You are a scientific minded bunch. Why don't you lend your help to the community and try and find out what is causing this? RULE OUT thimerosal, or RULE OUT vaccines! Do something more helpful than laugh and point fingers at a host of thousands and thousands of grief stricken parents who are scientific laymen.

02 August, 2005 07:25  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"So, let the games begin!"

Awful giddy for someone writing about a difficult ordeal (autism) faced by dire parents. Have some deceny.

Contrary to the picture you draw for your readers of parents "out for a jury pay day", most of us just want to help our kids. I appreciate your interest in the topic and your analysis of various therapies. But please, have some deceny.

03 August, 2005 18:44  
Blogger Prometheus said...

TO: Anonymous (above)

I looked though the posting and failed to find the quote "out for a jury pay day" - perhaps you were reading that somewhere else. In fact, this post didn't say anything about the parents of autistic children - just the people who prey on their desperation.

I make no apology for my glee at attacking people who are making money by selling false hope to desperate people - whether the people be the parents of autistic chilren, people with MS or people with depression. If these "practitioners" were honest, they would tell the people they prey on that their remedies have never been supported by well-controlled studies and that they patient uses them at their own risk and with no assurance of efficacy or safety. But they don't.

I have no quarrel with the victims of this crime - even those who have railed against me. I know what it is like to be desperate and willing to try anything to save someone I love. And that is the reason I have no mercy for those who - out of ignorance, greed or larceny - prey on those who are frantic for hope.


04 August, 2005 09:47  

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