The lead poisoning crisis in Flint, Mich., has led to a flurry of online “experts” promoting dietary supplements for chelation, a method for flushing heavy metals from the body.

“I’d be thinking oral chelation and homeopathic heavy metal detox,” says one website. “Two daily doses of 250 mg of Spirulina should act as an effective biosorbent and chelate with the lead,” says a promoter of algae supplements.

But the Food and Drug Administration warns consumers away from such claims for over-the-counter (OTC) products, none of which has been tested or approved for such uses.

Bogus Products

The FDA has approved certain prescription chelation products to treat people soon after they accidentally consumed heavy metals such as lead. If given in time, that legitimate form of chelation therapy can help flush the toxin from the body and prevent serious cases of lead poisoning. The drugs “require a prescription because they can only be used safely under the supervision of a health care practitioner,” the FDA says.  

“Illegal OTC chelation products are frequently marketed to deceive consumers into thinking they are taking a product that has been evaluated by FDA,” the agency says. In fact, “FDA has never approved any chelation product for OTC use for any health condition.”

But that hasn't stopped online marketers from pitching products—including ones named Metal Detox, Heavy Metal Cleanse, EDTA Heavy Metal Detoxification, which they claim work like prescription chelation products. Some even claim to contain EDTA (ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid), the active ingredient in some of those FDA-regulated drugs.  

Overhyped Claims

Sometimes intravenous chelation is also pitched as a cure-all for detoxifying the body or for treating a variety of chronic health problems.  

But that’s overreach, says Marvin M. Lipman, M.D., Consumer Report's chief medical adviser. “Chelation therapy is nearly 100 years old and has yet to find a use other than in heavy metal poisoning. It has been promoted by charlatans, many with M.D. after their names, to treat myriad disorders including autism, diabetes, peripheral vascular and coronary disease, without any evidence of benefit.”

Toxicology specialists, citing the medical evidence, say chelation should be used only for clearly diagnosed metal poisoning. In a guideline issued as part of the Choosing Wisely campaign, two national toxicology groups—the American College of Medical Toxicology and the American Academy of Clinical Toxicology —caution that “inappropriate chelation, which may cost hundreds to thousands of dollars,” means needless risk of side effects like kidney injury, mineral deficiencies, and allergic reactions, as well as fetal nerve damage, birth defects, and even death.