Role of Heavy Metals in Diseases and Aging
Research Confirms Benefits of Chelation with EDTA
by Ward Dean, MD
In the two previous issues of Vitamin Research News, both intravenous chelation therapy with EDTA were discussed. EDTA is a synthetic amino acid food preservative that has been used for nearly 50 years to clinically treat heavy metal toxicity and chronic degenerative diseases—especially, cardiovascular disease and cancer. Nevertheless, most orthodox physicians often deride claims of any benefit from chelation therapy, belittling the concerns of health-conscious people worried about potential adverse effects from heavy metals, such as lead, mercury, and aluminum.
Now, a flurry of papers recently published in prestigious “establishment” journals confirms that low levels of heavy metals—even at levels that were once considered “safe”—are, in fact, dangerous. This new research documents the toxic effects of these metals as they accumulate in the body over time, and indicates that chelation therapy provides benefits by reducing the body burden of these toxins, resulting in improved physiological functioning and better health.
Lead Increases Vascular Disease, Cancer, and Overall Mortality
Lead poisoning has long been recognized as a health hazard. Lead has been historically used in a number of industrial processes, including the manufacture of batteries, paints, and as an additive in gasoline. Acute lead poisoning (short-term, high exposure) causes symptoms of abdominal pain or “lead colic,” cognitive deficits, peripheral neuropathy, arthralgias, decreased libido, and anemia. It can be diagnosed by a characteristic “lead line” at the junction of the teeth and gums, and by high blood lead levels (over 80 micrograms per deciliter). (1)
However, the effects of chronic exposure to low levels of lead are more difficult to determine. Long-term exposure to low levels of lead may result in the gradual accumulation of lead and the development of a number of disorders and diseases, including learning and behavior problems, cardiovascular and kidney diseases, decreased fertility, hypertension and cancer. (2)
To determine the effects of chronic exposure to low levels of lead, Drs. Mark Lustberg, of the University of Maryland School of Medicine, and Ellen Silbergeld, of Johns Hopkins University, compared data gathered from the 2000 census in the US, and the massive Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES-III). (3) Based on these data, Lustberg and Silbergeld estimated that 29 million people (15 percent of the adult population over the age of 20) had blood lead levels of at least 20 mcg/dL from 1976-1980, and that currently at least 1.7 million people in the US have blood lead levels of at least 20 mcg/dL.
The authors examined the death rates of participants in the NHANE Survey who had lead blood levels less than 30 mcg per dL (30 mcg per dL is the level normally considered “toxic”). They found that blood lead levels ranging from as little as 20 to 29 mcg per dL were associated with a 39 percent increase in mortality from all causes. Addition-ally, these “low” levels of lead were associated with a 46 percent increase in mortality from cardiovascular diseases, and a whopping 68 percent increase in mortality due to cancer.
Even lower blood lead levels, measuring from 10 to 19 mcg/dL were associated with a significant 17 percent increase in mortality from all causes and 46 percent increase in mortality from cancer, when compared with blood lead levels less than 10 mcg/dL (Fig. 1.). Thus, it appears that there is no safe level of lead. Lead at any level contributes to increased disease-related mortality—especially from heart disease and cancer.
Mercury and Cardiovascular Disease
Until recently, the notion of treating heart disease with chelation therapy—one of the mechanisms of which is to remove heavy metals—was scorned by the medical establishment. But it appears that, once again, the field of “alternative medicine” has been ahead of its time. In an article in the November 28th, 2002 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, “Mercury, fish oils, and the risks of myocardial infarction,” the authors stated:
“Mercury may promote atherosclerosis and hence increase the risk of myocardial infarction in several ways. Mercury promotes the production of free radicals…and may bind selenium [so that it] cannot serve as a cofactor for glutathione peroxidase. Mercury may…inactivate the antioxidant properties of glutathione, catalase, and superoxide dismutase. Mercury may induce lipid peroxidation, and mercury levels were a strong predictor of oxidized LDL levels…Mercury compounds can also promote platelet aggregability and blood coagulability, inhibit endothelial-cell formation and migration, and affect apoptosis and the inflammatory response. Increased rates of cardiovascular disease were found in mercury-exposed workers, and mercury levels in hair predicted the progression of carotid atherosclerosis in a longitudinal study.” (4)
The article found that mercury levels were directly associated with the risk of myocardial infarction (heart attacks), and that this partially offset the protective effects of DHA derived from eating fish. The New England Journal editorialized: “The notion that methylmercury contributes to cardiovascular disease is certainly a testable hypothesis and one that warrants further testing.” (5)
Aluminum and Iron
A team of Belgian scientists recently published an article confirming that aluminum and iron both accumulate in the brain with aging, and that both can be removed from the brain with chelation therapy. They discuss the ability of several chelating agents to remove both metals from the brain and recommend long-term chelation therapy to prevent and treat a number of aging-related neurodegenerative diseases. (6)
Aluminum has been implicated as a cause of Alzheimer’s disease, atherosclerosis, and aging, due to its potent crosslinkage-promoting properties. Professor Johan Bjorksten’s Crosslinkage Theory of Aging was reviewed previously in a series of articles in Vitamin Research News. (7-10) Bjorksten recommended chelation therapy with EDTA as one of the most effective ways to prevent aluminum crosslinking and delay aging. (11)
Chelation Therapy Reverses Lead-Induced Kidney Damage
One of the most dramatic (and best-documented) physiological changes that occurs with aging is the inexorable decline in kidney function (12) Additionally, researchers have found that exposure to even very low levels of lead significantly impairs kidney function. (13)
A group of physicians at Chang Gung University in Taipei, Taiwan, conducted an interesting study to determine whether chelation therapy with intravenous EDTA could retard the progression of renal insufficiency. (14) The study originally involved 202 subjects (167 men and 35 women) ranging from 44 to 68 years of age who were suffering from chronic renal insufficiency (serum creatine, an indicator of kidney function, ranged between 1.5 mg/dL, to 3.9 mg/dL). All subjects had “normal” body lead concentrations. After screening subjects to ensure there was no occupational exposure to lead, the researchers observed decline in kidney function over the next two years.
After two years the researchers identified a group with “high-normal” levels of body lead levels (between 80 and 600 mcg) using an EDTA mobilization test. In this test, one gram of EDTA was administered intravenously, and urine was collected over the following three days. These 64 patients were enrolled in a treatment phase where half the subjects (26 men and 6 women) received chelation therapy (one gram of calcium disodium EDTA in 200 ml of saline, administered intravenously over two hours, once per week). After 3 months of treatment, the body lead burden of the chelation group had dropped from an average of 150 mcg to 43 mcg, and the glomerular filtration rate (a direct measure of kidney function) increased an average of 12 percent
The authors followed the control and chelation treatment groups for an additional 24 months. During that time, nineteen patients received an additional course of treatment because their serum creatinine had risen above its pre-treatment level. None of the subjects required more than one repeated three-month course of treatment. The authors remarked repeatedly about the safety and lack of toxicity of EDTA, and that it improved kidney function and reduced progression of renal insufficiency for at least 24 months
I think that in view of the reported adverse effects of even low levels of lead, the improvement in kidney function would have been even greater had the treatments continued beyond the original course of only 12 infusions. In my experience, about ten treatments are required before improvement in cardiovascular status occurs. Most chelating physicians recommend a course of twenty to thirty treatments (depending on one’s condition), with “maintenance therapy” on a monthly basis thereafter. Thus, the dramatic improvements shown in the NEJM study were based on the patients’ receiving what would be considered to be a minimal course of treatment by most chelating physicians in the US.
Toxic heavy metals like lead, mercury, and aluminum are implicated, even at low doses, in a number of diseases. Unfortunately, since these metals are ubiquitous in the environment, it is difficult to completely avoid all exposure. Consequently, it is likely that nearly everyone has an abnormal body burden of one or more of these toxic elements (The “normal” level of these substances in the body is “zero.”). Chelation therapy with EDTA, either oral or intravenous, is an underutilized treatment modality that potentially offers tremendous benefits for preventing and treating many age-related chronic degenerative diseases. Although the “challenge urine test” is the “gold standard” for diagnosing lead and mercury levels, hair mineral analysis is also acceptable. Hair analysis is inexpensive, convenient, and reflects a fairly accurate indication of the body burden of these and other toxic elements. Also, although DMSA is considered to be the chelating agent of choice for mercury, EDTA is a safe and effective chelator of mercury as well as lead.
For information and prices on the chelation treatment we offer in-house at the Whole Health Center Houston, please see this page.
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2. Lustberg, Mark, and Silbergeld, Ellen. Blood lead levels and mortality. Arch Intern Med, 2002, 162: 2443-2449.
3. Pinkle, J.L., Brody, D.J., Gunter, E.W., et al. The decline in blood lead levels in the United States: the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys (NHANES). JAMA, 1994, 272: 284-291.
4. Guallar, E., Sanz-Gallardo, I., Van’t Veer, P., et al. Mercury, fish oils, and the risk of myocardial infarction. New England J Med, 2002, 347: 22, 1747-1754.
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7. Dean, W. Crosslinkage theory of aging—New Life for an old theory, Part I. Vitamin Research News, 2002a, 16: 1, 1, 10-12.
8. Dean, W. Crosslinkage theory of aging—New Life for an old theory, Part II. Vitamin Research News, 2002b, 16: 1, 2, 1-3.
9. Dean, W. Crosslinkage theory of aging—The neurotoxic effects of aluminum, Part III. Vitamin Research News, 2002c, 16: 1, 3, 1, 10-12.
10. Dean, W. Crosslinkage theory of aging—AGEs and crosslinkages—New respect for crosslinkage theory, Part III. Vitamin Research News, 2002d, 16: 1, 5, 1, 4-7, 16.
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12. Rowe, J.W., Andres, R., Tobin, J.D., Norris, A.H., and Shock, N.W. The effect of age on creatinine clearance in man. J Gerontol, 1976, 31, 155-163.
13. Kim, R., Rotnitsky, A., Sparrow, D., et al. A longitudinal study of low-level lead exposure and impairment of renal function: the Normative Aging Study. JAMA, 1996, 275: 1177-1181.
14. Lin, Ja-Liang, Lin-Tan, Dan-Tzu, Hsu, Kuang-Hung, and Yu, Chun-Chen. Environmental Lead Exposure and progression of chronic renal diseases in patients without diabetes. New England J Med, 2003, 348: 4, 277-286.