Since the U.S. EPA rolled out proposals last December for new regulations of mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants, warnings about the health risks of mercury have increased. The federal government considers consumption of too much mercury-laden fish to be the single-largest risk factor for women of child-bearing age. According to the government, that risk is small. But some members of the medical profession say mercury in any amount interferes with the immune system. To promote healing, they advocate the removal of excess amounts of heavy metals through a therapy called chelation. But when is chelation therapy the right choice? ideastream's Karen Schaefer has this report.
Keely Siegel looks and acts like a typical 5-year-old. After nursery school, she leads her younger sister Jackie in dancing to a favorite CD. Later she settles down to tell a story from one of her favorite books. But her mother, 45-year-old Patti Siegel, says it wasn't long ago that Keely seemed anything but normal.
Patti Siegel asked her doctor to test Keely for the presence of heavy metals. She'd already had her own levels checked and was told she had higher than normal levels of mercury. Her daughter's tests showed elevated levels of mercury and arsenic. Mercury poisoning can cause damage to the nervous system, brain and kidneys. Even at lower levels mercury can cause developmental delays in young children. Siegel decided on chelation therapy for both Keely and herself.
Patti Siegel: I started chelation and I feel much better.
Chelation therapy is a medically-proven method of removing toxic or extremely high levels of mercury or other heavy metals from the human body. Mary Jean Brown heads the Lead Poisoning and Prevention program at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.
Mary Jean Brown: You could think of chelation as a chemical claw.
Brown says chelation uses chemical substitution to speed up the natural excretion process. She says it works well to reduce dangerously high levels of lead and other metals. But Brown believes there's not much evidence that reducing low to moderate levels has any therapeutic benefit.
Mary Jean Brown: They could not find any differences in the intelligence or the cognititive ability of these kids based on who got chelated and who got placebo.
Brown says that's because the damage caused by low levels of heavy metals is subtle and shows up more in populations than in individuals. But Dr. James Frackelton holds a different view. He's a partner in the Preventative Medicine Group in Cleveland that's been treating Siegel and her daughter. He says there's no safe level of mercury in the human body.
James Frackelton: If you ask why any disease occurs in the first place, we're overstressed mentally, understressed physically, we over-eat the wrong food and under-eat the right food and we're being poisoned by the environment. When we actually address the mercury problem, people get an awful lot better.
Dr. Frackelton admits that it sometimes takes multiple treatments to lower mercury levels. And he says removing metals from the body is a tricky business. Chelating agents flush out all heavy metals, including those like iron and zinc that are needed for healthy function.
James Frackelton: I look at chelation therapy as a huge theater where we yell fire and the good guys and the bad guys rush out of their seats and then we start pushing the good guys back in their seats.
That's why Patti and Keely Siegel and her daughter are still taking a long list of vitamin and mineral supplements. This therapeutic approach to chelation therapy has some adherents. But most mainstream physicians consider it an unnecessary and even potentially dangerous practice. Dr. Tee Guidotti is a toxicologist with the Mid-Atlantic Center for Children's Health and the Environment at George Washington University.
Tee Guidotti: The specific issues of mercury intoxication require somebody who's highly knowledgeable. The agents that are used to chelate mercury have their own risks.
Dr. Guidotti says some chelating agents can damage the kidneys, while one common chelator known as calcium EDTA can leach calcium from bones and teeth. But more importantly he says most people just don't need chelation.
Tee Guidotti: When patients are referred to me for sort of the general complaint of I feel badly and I don't have the energy anymore and could I be poisoned by lead or mercury or arsenic whatever, it almost never is an environmental exposure. Almost never.
Environmental exposures could include a toxic spill at work or breathing mercury vapor from a broken thermometer. There's not as much known about low-level exposures, but one recent study from the Seychelles Islands showed surprising results. There it was found that children and adults who eat fish often and have much higher levels of mercury than are considered safe showed no significant deterioration of brain function. Researchers admit the health effects of long-term exposure to low levels of mercury still need more study. In Cleveland, Karen Schaefer, 90.3.