No wait, it’s not mercury, it’s — lead!

A four-year old autistic boy, Noah Breakiron, is in the news for being cured of lead poisoning.

“We have a child here who is virtually indistinguishable from his peers and that’s certainly not what he was a year or two years ago,” added Pediatrician David Berger, MD.

The article also says,

Because the symptoms of autism and lead poisoning are so similar, Noah’s parents say they will never know which one came first, autism or lead poisoning.

Huh? A child might possibly have both autism and lead poisoning, but they are not the same, nor are the symptoms similar. Let’s review a list of possible symptoms of autism, as described on the Mayo Clinic page (not all autistic children will exhibit all these traits):

Social skills

  • Fails to respond to his or her name
  • Has poor eye contact
  • Appears not to hear you at times
  • Resists cuddling and holding
  • Appears unaware of others’ feelings
  • Seems to prefer playing alone — retreats into his or her “own world”
  • Language

  • Starts talking later than other children
  • Loses previously acquired ability to say words or sentences
  • Does not make eye contact when making requests
  • Speaks with an abnormal tone or rhythm — may use a singsong voice or robot-like speech
  • Can’t start a conversation or keep one going
  • May repeat words or phrases verbatim, but doesn’t understand how to use them
  • Behavior

  • Performs repetitive movements, such as rocking, spinning or hand-flapping
  • Develops specific routines or rituals
  • Becomes disturbed at the slightest change in routines or rituals
  • Moves constantly
  • May be fascinated by parts of an object, such as the spinning wheels of a toy car
  • May be unusually sensitive to light, sound and touch
  • Got that? Now let’s look at the symptoms of lead poisoning (list also from Mayo Clinic):

    Signs and symptoms in children
    The signs and symptoms of lead poisoning in children are nonspecific and may include:

  • Irritability
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Sluggishness
  • Abdominal pain
  • Vomiting
  • Constipation
  • Unusual paleness (pallor) from anemia
  • Learning difficulties
  • Lead poisoning sure doesn’t look like autism to me; do those sound the same to you? And although learning difficulties may be present in addition to autism, they are not part of the DSM-IV diagnostic criteria for autism. Furthermore, there is absolutely no good evidence that autism is caused by lead poisoning.

    Sure, there are a few toys with dangerous levels of lead out there. And toddlers do chew on toys. It’s possible for a child to get lead poisoning from toys, although leaded alkyd house paints used before 1978 are more common sources. The important thing to remember is that with any kind of poison, the danger is always in the dosage. Everyone, everywhere is exposed to and even carries minute, trace amounts of metals simply because they are ubiquitous in the environment. For example, I’m sure I have microscopic amounts of lead in my body, simply because I was alive for decades when leaded gasoline was used (it was banned in the US in 1996). But that doesn’t mean I have lead poisoning. So how is lead toxicity determined? By blood testing, as further described by the Mayo page:

    Doctors use a blood test to detect lead poisoning. A small blood sample is taken from a finger prick or from a vein. Lead levels in the blood are measured in micrograms per deciliter (mcg/dL). An unsafe level is 10 mcg/dL or higher — a guideline set by the CDC.

    And the treatment?

    For more severe cases, your doctor may recommend treatment called chelation therapy in addition to removal from lead exposure. In chelation therapy, the medicine (chelating agent) you take binds with the lead so that it’s excreted in your urine. Doctors may treat some Class III cases and many Class IV cases with the oral drug succimer (dimercaptosuccinic acid).

    Doctors treat lead levels greater than 45 mcg/dL of blood, which fall into Class IV or V, with a chemical called ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid (EDTA). EDTA is administered through injections in your veins (intravenously) and may be combined with the drug dimercaprol (BAL). Depending on your lead level, you may need more than one treatment. The therapy may not reverse damage that already has occurred in cases of severe lead intoxication.

    A view of Dr Berger’s Web site for “Wholistic Pediatrics” describes that the well-established standard of a blood test is not preferred,

    We are also concerned about heavy metal toxicity in our patients. Many people with chronic disorders have mercury, lead and other heavy metals accumulating in their body.

    We have found that a chelation challenge test is the best way to identify the presence of toxic metals.

    Unfortunately, the chelation challenge (provoked test) is not accurate for determining levels of heavy metals. Chelation not only collects but concentrates metals, which are then excreted in the urine at higher levels than would normally be present. The “chelation challenge” gives inflated lab results that do not accurately reflect the levels of heavy metals actually in the body, and thus is not a good diagnostic tool for heavy metal poisoning. It seems odd that a pediatrician would choose to use this test.

    Care must be taken when giving treatments for heavy metal poisoning. The standard treatment is to remove lead from the environment. In cases of extremely high levels, intravenous chelation is used. It does not, however, undo all the effects of lead poisoning.

    What kind of test was used to determine the lead levels in Noah? The article does not say, nor does it mention the type of chelation used. Did Noah have lead poisoning? Possibly. Did the chelation treatments given to him get rid of his autism? That’s doubtful. Without knowing more, it is impossible to comment upon the veracity of Noah’s medical diagnoses or the appropriateness of subsequent treatment. And that’s not really the point of this post.

    The reason I mention this poorly-written story is that by chance or design, it links “lead poisoning” with “autism” and suggests that treatments for the former will eliminate the latter.

    Like with any kind of therapy or treatment marketed for autism, we must remember that autism is a developmental disorder. The development of the child is slower or erratic compared to age-peers. However, that is not the same thing as developmental stasis. The continued acquisition of skills by autistic children are often attributed to the therapies given to them, rather than simply due to maturation. Autistic children who are not given the scores of dubious therapies also improve as they mature.

    Put simply:

    • Lead poisoning is detected through blood tests.
    • Lead poisoning can cause learning difficulties, but is not the same thing as autism. The symptoms of lead poisoning and autism are very different.
    • “Chelation challenge” tests are not accurate for assessing levels of heavy metals.
    • Chelation can be used to remove heavy metals from the body, with intravenous EDTA reserved for high toxicity levels. However, removing those from the body does not undo all of the effects of severe heavy-metal poisoning.
    • Chelation will not cure autism.
    • Autistic children continue to grow and develop at their own rates, sometimes to the point that they do not require extra school services or therapies. At that point, they are autistic children who do not require extra school services or therapies. (Yeup, they’re still autistic.)

    Chelation as a treatment to “cure” autism has a sad history; currently Dr Roy Kerry is to stand trial for the death of a 5-year old autistic boy, Abubakar Tariq Nadama, who died in 2005 from a chelation session. In that case, mercury was the perceived toxin. But as the evidence for autism-as-mercury-poisoning repeatedly fails to hold up under scientific scrutiny, in scores of studies around the world. Mercury-based thimerosal (preservative) in vaccines was removed back in 2002, so mercury cannot easily be blamed for the ongoing cases of autistic toddlers (yet people still keep trying, especially those who are emotionally invested in the idea or financially invested in selling their products). We’re already seeing the peddlers of bogus autism cures change their stories.

    Doubtless the focus will be switched to lead. Lead contamination in toys has been a hot news topic, just as has autism. It’s easy for the two things to be conflated in the minds of concerned parents. If you search on the internet for treatments for lead poisoning, you will find an incredible number of things being sold, many of which are useless or dangerous. Although chelation is prescribed for severe cases of lead poisoning, it must be done with care; also in 2005, a 2-year old girl, Alyssa Renee Rodriguez died after she was given the wrong chelator. The numbers of news stories about lead poisoning simply create a ready market for the purveyors of unnecessary therapies and dubious cures. The World Wide Woo: Now Lead-Chelator flavored!

    15 Comments

    1. Stephanie said,

      8 March 2009 at 21:53

      My daughter is with a great doctor who specialized in recovering children. I don’t appreciate people who scare mom’s about chelation. My daughter has been chelating for 6 months. She is a completely different human being. She is 4 years old now and is recovering from lead toxicity and is expected to make a full recovery. I have seen two DAN doctors now and both have said they have never had an incident go wrong or bad with chelation. What is the alternative? Your child has heavy metals in their system which causes them to not function as they were meant to?? Get a clue people! If I would have kept on listening to 15 doctors, yes, 15! That told me, “she is just behind on her speech, she’ll catch up, get her into pre-school”, my daughter still would have been sick had it not been for her bio-medical treatments. I stumbled on this site and I have run into so many mom’s who read comments about death from chelation so they don’t do it and their child is messed up for the rest of their life when it is totally curable and treatable with chelation! My daughter has been doing fabulous and gets better every week with breakthrough’s daily that we cry tears of joy over. I recommend chelation and I recommend paying the money it costs to recover your child! It is soooo sad to me when I speak to mom’s who say it costs too much to detox their child or get them tested for heavy metals. The next generation is at stake if we aren’t encouraging these mom’s at all costs to go the extra mile and have their children tested for metals and if they are present to find a great DAN doctor who can guide them safely through recovery with extensive monitoring. Out of 10 children, our case worker from our Intermediate Unit who helps children in the classroom, says my daughter is the only one on DAN protocol recovery. Out of 10 children on spectrum! It is scary that mom’s are, in my opinion, don’t have the time, or don’t make the time to recover their children because they are too tired at the end of a long work day. Hey, mom…turn off the t.v. until your child is recovered. Too harsh…too bad. I am sooo tired of hearing from Mom’s who are simply doing nothing. Fight mom’s fight!!!! Your child is locked in there…it is up to you to dig, researchr, learn and take control!! I pray for you mom’s I really do. My heart is for you, not against you…please America, wake up and recover our children. My doctor is Dr. Cheryl Leuthaeuser D.O. in Richfield, Ohio. Parents bring children from all over to her. She is amazing. If anyone reads this and needs someone to test and/or recover their child her number is toll free 1-888-523-2320 May we all learn from this epidemic…
      p.s. my child may have gotten her toxicity from a toy from china or lead from the soil as we lived in a development within a 2 mile radius from the interstate…my doctor said the the lead from the gasoline years ago settled on the land and when it was developed it was toxic soil that was built upon…..also…tip! new carpets…1/4 vinegar per gallon of water….steam out the metals pronto

    2. 2 April 2008 at 23:53

      […] 4. Autism is a developmental disability, not developmental stasis. I'm loosely quoting Andrea, so go read where she said it first. […]

    3. leslie hardman said,

      13 March 2008 at 14:01

      sorry i have to change my wording .. he had some words at age 14 months.

    4. leslie hardman said,

      13 March 2008 at 13:59

      my son has lead poisioning he was locked in a bed room by his real parents. his counts were over 70 he was 14 months old he did say words now at age 2 he says 2 words and there not used at the right time. but i cant get no service to help me because this is hardly ever seen. but he is shown signs og autism, pdd, adhd,ocd, sensory processing disorder, we are taking him to cinninatii childrens hospital in april. but still if there is any body out that could help me . please contact me at momsaangell@yahoo.com or momsaangell@aol.com

    5. Prometheus said,

      19 January 2008 at 7:04

      Great post!

      I might have a little to add, however.

      “The article does not say, nor does it mention the type of chelation used.”

      The article you linked to doesn’t have as much detail as this one. That article give a clue:

      “The painful treatments have hurt financially, too. Insurance doesn’t cover the specialized procedures, which have cost the Breakirons $20,000 so far.”

      The current first-line treatment for lead poisoning is oral DMSA. This drug is not particularly pleasant (is smells awful), but it is neither painful nor expensive. In fact, it is less painful, more effective and safer than the alternatives.

      However, many “practitioners” use intravenous EDTA – the old first-line drug and still an alternative treatment – which is both painful (from the IV needles and it stings when it is infused) and expensive. EDTA itself isn’t particularly expensive, but the “office procedure” charges really rack up.

      So, not only is poor Noah being put through needless pain, but his parents are being put through needless expense.

      Prometheus

    6. Calli Arcale said,

      18 January 2008 at 3:58

      It is correct to say that autism is not heavy metal poisoning. If your kid really has heavy metal poisoning, it should be treated. (Contact a doctor.)

      One thing the blog article did not mention is that chelation is not a risk-free procedure, which is why I find it utterly abhorrent that some people attempt to diagnose heavy metal toxicity through a “chelation challenge”. It is sufficiently dangerous that I think it’s totally irresponsible to use it as a diagnostic tool, especially when there are far safer, far easier, far more reliable, and far *cheaper* methods of diagnosing such things. (The last should give a clue as to why some unethical physicians tout chelation as a cure for all ills, not limited to autism. Some claim they can treat atherosclerosis, and with about as much justification.)

      The thing is, chelation is not intelligent. The chelating agent is a chemical which binds very strongly to a lot of different ions in the blood. This makes it superb for removing heavy metals which otherwise would linger. Unfortunately, it doesn’t discriminate very well. In particular, it will remove calcium (which is why they think it might help atherosclerosis — an idea which mainstream science was very intrigued by until it proved not to work). This isn’t bad just because it might lead to osteoporosis. This is bad because it can make your muscles stop working, including your heart, which relies on the flow of calcium ions. (Your body needs calcium so badly that if you don’t get enough in your diet, it will turn to your bones as a reservoir. After all, osteoporosis is better than death.)

      There have been deaths associated with chelation because of this. Don’t do it without a good reason.

    7. qw88nb88 said,

      8 January 2008 at 0:33

      AutismPapa,
      I’m sure it is confusing, and stressful for everyone involved. We all want our children to achieve their best potentials.

      I think that claims that a “lot” of autistic children having mercury or lead poisoning are simply that. Everyone wants to find a simple, concrete “reason why” to make life less confusing (sometimes to assign blame), and to help focus energies toward helping our children. But, real life is not always that simple.

      Unfortunately, the hair tests are considered to be poor indicators of mineral levels, which is why blood tests are used. (I use the word “mineral” because they are also sold as indicators for nutrient deficiencies as well as heavy metal tests.) There are a wide number of factors that can affect mineral levels in hair (environmental factors, individual growth rates, the differences in thickness between different people’s hair, even the expression of various minerals in hair compared to levels in other body tissues). Mercury for example cannot be tested by hair samples because hairs do have blood supply, so are not mercury sinks. A recent study showed wide ranges of values for identical samples between labs, within the same lab, and even in the lab methods used.
      (Less technical explanations. )

      Different metals are tested by different means. A blood test is most useful for lead, and an 24-hour urine test (without chelator) is most useful for mercury. As I mentioned before, everyone has microscopic levels of various metals in their bodies, including those that are necessary for life at the right levels. The quantities of metals are what determining actual poisoning.

      When considering various tests, therapies and so on, remember the caveat emptor and ask yourself what the person is actually selling (aside from promises). A number of fads for causes and treatments of autism have come and gone over the years. If one of those really worked, there would be thousands and thousands of cured people out there. In reality, there are a few children who are described as having been cured by this or that, meaning they have “lost the diagnostic label” as far as needing school services, or that they appear “indistinguishable from their peers”. There are many more “uncured” autistics out there who have likewise matured.

      The important thing to remember is that people mature at different rates; I couldn’t tie my shoes until 3rd grade, and didn’t know my multiplication tables until 8th grade. I flunked a class in junior high, and barely passed a few others. I had to have speech therapy. My sports skills were essentially non-existent. My mother despaired over my penmanship and lack of grace. Certainly no one expected me to go to college; their goals were for me to “not be a burden on the family”. Despite these “horrible” hurdles, I have two college degrees, have been doing public speaking for years, have jobs and a family of my own.

      What concerns me about so many of the people who spend tons of time and money pursuing cures, is that some of them do not feel their children are acceptable until (or unless) they are “cured”. They describe their children as soulless, as empty shells, as having rotting brains or any number of hurtful statements. This is so very sad, for the child and for their family. Tragically, this type of attitude leads some people to feel that such children are better off dead.

      But to accept that your child is autistic does not mean that you are resigned. To quit chasing dubious cures or unproven therapies is not the same thing as giving up on your child. That our children have different problems than their peers doesn’t mean that they cannot have happy lives. Once you realise that you’re not in the running for blue ribbons at following the average developmental goals, you can find some liberation at quitting the whole “rat race” for being highest, first or best. Life isn’t really a race to the finish (after all, everyone’s dead at the end); it’s about how you live. Instead of trying to “beat” autism, work with your child to help them play, learn and grow in whatever ways are most helpful.

      andrea

    8. 7 January 2008 at 22:54

      Unlike the speculations about mercury exposure in vaccines, lead poisoning and lead exposure is very real.

      It certainly was a problem earlier in the last century with lead pipes supplying many households, lead in household paints, and lead in car exhausts.

      You would expect my generation and my forebears to be the most heavily affected.

      • Dennis said,

        7 December 2009 at 16:38

        “You would expect my generation and my forebears to be the most heavily affected”

        If a baby can inherit a drug addiction from the mother, doesn’t it stand to reason that the baby could also inherit elevated levels of lead and mercury?

    9. AutismPapa said,

      7 January 2008 at 22:28

      So, I wonder why a lot of children with ASD diagnosis have excess/elevated levels of lead in their system, including my child? Are we supposed to dismiss the current hair and blood tests? When do we say that indeed, our autistic children have excessive levels of lead (or mercury), when no tests seem to be good enough?

      I can accept that my son could be forever autistic, whatever we do, it can possibly be a fact. But not the thought of doing nothing, even though these lab tests (not just for metals) show something wrong, and there’s a way to alleviate my son’s lifelong suffering…This is getting confusing…

    10. qw88nb88 said,

      7 January 2008 at 6:09

      daedalus, thank you for the link — most interesting and alarming.

      Do’C, I blame my lack of regular television-viewing for not being previously familiar with this story.

      Marla, siezures as “manipulative”? Now that is indeed scary. Unfortunately, mis-interpreting physical disorders as behavioural issues is a problem that surfaces more frequently than we would expect. Such stories are also not uncommon among people with Tourette’s or dyslexia.

      andrea

    11. Do'C said,

      7 January 2008 at 3:17

      Excellent write-up Andrea. I remember seeing this Noah Breakiron story last summer. Yep, it made the rounds through TV back in August. I’m filing it under Recylcled DAN! doctor “stories”. Lead poisoning? Given Dr. Berger’s website, it sure doesn’t look likely, does it. Possible I suppose.

    12. Marla said,

      7 January 2008 at 3:11

      When we were having our daughter evaluated we tested for lead just to be thorough. The test came back negative. We had her tested three times over a few years. Turns out our daughter is autistic with a chromosome disorder. All doctors were more willing to test for things like lead poisoning rather than her ongoing, untreated and undiagnosed seizures. When I think back I could cry at the years we did test after worthless test and she went on having seizures that were considered to be her manipulating us. Ridiculous.

    13. daedalus2u said,

      7 January 2008 at 3:04

      You left out the most important and diagnostic symptom of lead poisoning, an elevated level of lead.

      Lead levels are a lot lower now than they were 30+ years ago due to the removal of lead from gasoline.

      Chelation with DMSA in the absence of actual lead poisoning causes learning impairment.

      http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?tool=pubmed&pubmedid=17384765

      • KM said,

        26 July 2010 at 18:26

        You fail to mention this study did not supplement the loss of minerals. It failed to make an accurate assessment.


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