“After my angina came back, I thought, this is the end for me. I sold my big house, sold the elastics business I had been in for thirty years, and did a lot of cleaning up to make life easier for wife after I was gone,” 59-year-old John Flore of New Jersey says, “When I first started EDTA chelation therapy, I was planning on dying.”
Flore had had a triple bypass three-and-a-half years earlier, but when the chest pain returned and an angiogram revealed that his grafted arteries had closed up, he refused to even consider more heart surgery. “That operation was the most awful thing in my life,” he recalls. “I’d die before I’d do that again.”
Instead, Flore began an unconventional treatment—and thrived. At the urging of a neighbor, he began seeing New York City holistic physician Warren Levin, who gave him a detailed medical workup, then recommended a drastic change in diet, nutritional supplements, and treatment with the controversial drug ethylene-diamine-tetra-acetic acid, a man-made amino acid commonly known as EDTA.
The treatment consists of a series of intravenous infusions given two to three times a week for a total of 20–40 infusions or more, depending on the particular case. The infusions usually last three-and-a-half to four hours, and each generally contains three grams of EDTA.
When Flore began the therapy, he had trouble walking the short distance from the train station to Levin’s office. “I couldn’t walk a block. My legs felt as though they were going to collapse.” But after about fifteen treatments, his chest and leg pain had totally disappeared. “I feel terrific,” he says now. “I even look younger—I don’t have any more little wrinkles around my eyes. Chelation has given me a new lease on life.”
Since the ’50s, 400,000 people like John Flore have undergone chelation therapy for a staggering variety of ailments, including angina pains, peripheral vascular disease, gangrene, memory loss, senility, chronic skin ulcers, and retina damage from diabetes. Many of them have pronounced it a miracle cure.
The 1,000 MDs, who practice chelation, claim it has valid long-term effects. These physicians maintain that EDTA has an extraordinary success rate—long-lasting, subjective improvement in 75–90 percent of all patients. Says Elmer Cranton, former president of his county medical society and author of a recently published book called Bypassing Bypass, “My patients don’t get all completely well. But 85 percent improve enough so that they’re happy with the treatment.” Furthermore, Cranton and his colleagues claim that when administered according to established protocol, EDTA is one of today’s safest medications, less toxic than aspirin.
If reports such as Flore’s, Cranton’s and others are accurate, chelation ranks as one of the greatest discoveries of all time. Most of the ailments chelationists claim to treat successfully stem from impaired circulation, often caused by arteriosclerosis—the progressive accumulation of arterial plaque that clogs and stiffens arteries, leading inevitably to heart attacks and strokes. Arteriosclerosis affects up to 100 million people in the United States, and modern medicine offers no cure. Drugs and surgery temporarily relieve symptoms but do nothing to stop the progress of the disease.
Still, not everyone shares chelationists’ enthusiasm. The treatment is at the center of a whirlwind of medical controversy. Even the most open-minded physicians—like William Castelli, medical director of Framingham Heart Study, the longest-running analysis of the relationship between diet and heart disease—are skeptical.
But California doctor Ross Gordon is so sure EDTA is safe that he himself has undergone chelation treatment. President of the 400-member, 11-year-old American Academy of Medical Preventics (AAMPS), which designed and distributed guidelines for the therapy and helps to defend chelating physicians who are challenged by state medical boards, Gordon has treated himself for the past 15 years with more than 100 infusions of EDTA. “I’m 54 now,” he says. “When I was 32, my blood pressure was 220/110. Today my blood pressure is 130/85; I’ve taken no medication for the past 20 years, and that’s the reason chelation is worth fighting for.”
Caught in the middle are millions of desperate patients. They are in pain—often life-threatening pain—that mainstream medicine can’t seem to relieve. Yet their doctors discourage them from seeking alternatives. Chelation therapy using EDTA has become so controversial that the key issue is often obscured; a good deal of research suggests that chelation effectively improves impaired circulation.
Ethylene-diamine-tetra-acetic acid is a chelating agent, from the Greek Chele, meaning claw, which describes its action of grabbing ions, electrically charged metal atoms, and incorporating them into its structure. It is also an antibacterial agent and is widely used as a preservative.
EDTA has a particular affinity for heavy and toxic metals and was approved by the Federal Food and Drug Administration as a treatment for lead poisoning in 1959. Unexpectedly, lead-poisoning victims who also suffered symptoms of arteriosclerosis reported that chelation reduced their angina and leg pain and increased their endurance. Because of these unforeseen benefits, doctors began studying the effects of EDTA on patients with arteriosclerosis.
In a series of patient studies performed between the mid-1950s and 1960, Norman E. Clarke, Charles N. Clarke, and Robert E. Mosher, physicians at Detroit’s Providence Hospital, observed striking subjective improvements in nearly 200 patients with a variety of symptoms, including angina, circulatory problems, and cerebrovascular senility.
In 1959, J. Roderick Kitchell, Chief of Cardiology at Presbyterian Hospital in Philadelphia, and surgeon Lawrence E. Meltzer studied 10 patients with disabling angina who had not responded to any therapy. EDTA seemed ineffective, and the study was discontinued. But two or three months after their treatment ended, some patients reported fewer and less severe angina attacks. Five of nine patients who had had abnormal EKGs also improved. The enlarged hearts of three patients returned to normal size.
Although cautious, Kitchell and Meltzer concluded that all these improvements, plus their similarity to Clarkes’ findings, were persuasive evidence that “chelation may well be an effective treatment for coronary artery disease.”
Cranton and other physicians point to more recent studies for objective evidence of chelation’s benefits. In 1981, for example, AlchardCasdorph, former assistant clinical professor of medicine at the University of California Medical School in Irvine treated 18 patients with documented arteriosclerotic heart disease, some of whom had undergone bypass surgery but were still in pain. All their symptoms improved, and there was a small but significant increase in the heart’s pumping action in 17 of the 18 patients. Casdorph has also successfully treated patients with reduced cerebral blood flow and gangrenous limbs. In another recent study, Kansas City osteopath Edward McDonagh showed that chelation therapy can reduce abnormal retinal pressure in diabetic patients.
But patients’ own stories substantiate these medical reports.
Three years ago 51-year-old ReberTesterman, a Pennsylvania farmer, was told by a surgeon that the only treatment for his gangrenous left foot would be amputation of his leg from the knee down. Testerman was in constant pain; the only way around the three farms he managed was to drag his leg after him. He could sleep only in a big stuffed chair with his leg propped up over the side, and even then the pain would wake him after an hour. When his surgeon recommended amputation, Testerman decided to take a chance on chelation therapy. Even after chelation, he lost two of his toes and one side of his left foot, but he’s pleased to have his leg and nearly total mobility. “I feel if I had started chelation three months earlier I wouldn’t have needed any amputation at all,” he said recently.
In 1980, 46-year-old Jeri Hornsby had bypass surgery on her left carotid artery, hoping the operation would increase blood flow to her brain and relieve her dizziness, poor vision, and failing memory. Instead, she got worse: “I’d try to introduce my husband to someone and would totally go blank. ‘This is my…my…my…’ and I’d just stand there. I finally stopped introducing him.” Told surgery could do no more for her, Hornsby began chelation therapy. “After my fourth treatment, I started feeling better. After my seventh, I could drive again.”
Chelationists are justifiably angry that orthodox medicine ignores the existing studies. Indeed, the AMA writes that its unsuccessful literature search to confirm chelationists’ claims covered the period from 1966-1984. Yet pro-chelation literature reveals that the relevant studies took place prior to that period.
Patients are angry, too. Each EDTA infusion costs an average of $75, so a course of 20 with diagnostic tests runs up to $2,000. That’s far less than bypass surgery, which can cost more than $25,000, but insurance companies routinely pay for bypass, while patients must fight to be reimbursed for chelation and are flatly refused.
EDTA’s proponents point out that the arguments mounted against chelation could just as easily be aimed at chelation therapy’s main rival, the current darling of mainstream heart medicine, bypass surgery. Bypass has never been tested by controlled clinical trials. It is far more costly than chelation and far more dangerous, a criticism with which many mainstream physicians agree. Writing in the December 1984 Atlantic Monthly, Thomas A. Preston, chief of cardiology at Pacific Medical Center was forcefully blunt, “The operation does not cure patients, it is scandalously overused, and its high cost drains resources from other areas of need.”
Although bypass does offer most patients relief from angina for an average of two to five years, Elmer Cranton says this makes it even more dangerous; patients often think they’re all right and go on living unhealthy lives. As Cranton explains, “The bypass approach treats the tip of the iceberg, the site where plaque has developed most rapidly, while ignoring the rest of the circulatory network.”
Some chelationists believe that the therapy works because EDTA helps unclog the circulatory system by drawing calcium from plaque or that all of EDTA’s various effects stem from its proven action, as a lead chelator. Others say the EDTA helps reduce the effects of free radicals—highly reactive atomic structures lacking one electron that contribute to the process of aging.
Richard Casdorph has related the action of EDTA to that of a new class of heart medication, the calcium-channel blockers, that appear to reduce the entry of calcium into cells. Since arteries need calcium ions to contract, blocking them is believed to keep arteries relaxed and open. Casdorph says, “When you block the influx of calcium at the cellular level, you get a vasodilatory effect.”
What may be equally significant about chelation therapy, obscured by the furor over EDTA, is that it’s part of a holistic package, consisting of diet and other factors proven to allay heart disease. The chelation diet is low in fat and has no refined sugar, or white flour or rice. It is high in fiber, whole grains, and fresh fruits and vegetables—similar to the diet recommended by the American Heart Association. EDTA treatment is also generally accompanied by serious mineral supplementation, primarily zinc, chromium, copper, iron, and magnesium. Michael Schachter, a board-certified psychiatrist practicing orthomolecular psychiatry and holistic medicine in Nyack, New York, points out, “We must check potassium levels since many patients who come for chelation therapy are on diuretics that cause a potassium loss.” Many chelating physicians insist that patients stop smoking, sometimes refusing to treat them until they do. And most patients are encouraged to begin an exercise program.
The heart of the therapy is the chelation experience: support groups that meet for three-and-a-half to four hours at a time, two or three times a week. Patients sit together in groups, giving each other positive reinforcement, encouragement, and support. They can’t walk around easily; distractions are few; the talk is of recovery. There’s little else to do but focus on the illness, the treatment, and getting well again. New patients walk into a room of others sitting in big recliners, each with a needle in one arm attached to an intravenous stand to one side. They usually remember that first moment vividly. Reber Testerman recalls, “What helped me most was the atmosphere. It was just relaxed and felt like home.” Jeri Hornsby says, “When you walk into the chelation therapy room and hear everyone talking and laughing, you’d think there wasn’t anybody sick in there. It’s like a big, happy family. And you think, all these people are getting better, so I’m going to get better.”
Bypassing Bypass: The New Technique of Chelation Therapy
by Elmer Cranton and ArlinBrecher, 1985
Chelation Therapy by Dr. Morton Walker, 1980
Reprinted from the Port Townsend Health Letter—Winter 1986