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8 EDTA Uses & Chelation Therapy Benefits + Side Effects

Written by Carlos Tello, PhD (Molecular Biology) | Reviewed by Ana Aleksic, MSc (Pharmacy) | Last updated:
Medically reviewed by
Puya Yazdi, MD | Written by Carlos Tello, PhD (Molecular Biology) | Reviewed by Ana Aleksic, MSc (Pharmacy) | Last updated:

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EDTA

EDTA binds toxic heavy metals and can reverse poisoning. The controversy was born when people started claiming it can also improve conditions such as heart disease or even Alzheimer’s. Reports about mineral deficiencies from EDTA chelation began to emerge. How dangerous is uncontrolled EDTA use and when does it actually help? Read on to find out.

What Is EDTA?

Definition

EDTA (Ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid) is a transparent, water-soluble compound first synthesized in 1935. It belongs to a class of molecules called chelators (from the Greek word chelé, meaning “claw”) that bind – chelate – metals [1+].

How Does It Work?

EDTA binds minerals and it is especially attracted to those with a +2 or +3 charge. This includes toxic heavy metals such as lead, cadmium, and chromium, trace elements like aluminum, and essential minerals such as calcium, magnesium, copper, and zinc [2].

Given orally, the gut barely absorbs any EDTA. Given through an IV, EDTA travels through the blood without entering the cells. It is then flushed with the metals bound to it via the urine [3].

This allows the use of EDTA chelation therapy – it will sweep heavy metals or other minerals out of the body.

History of Use

After World War II, many navy personnel developed lead poisoning from the paint in ship hulls. Doctors found that EDTA helped. Therefore, it was encouraged as the standard therapy for lead poisoning [1+, 4].

Shortly after, in the ’50s, claims about EDTA preventing heart disease started to spread. Presumably, EDTA offered benefits by reducing calcium buildup in the vessels. This theory was debunked, and new ones around its free radical scavenging abilities started to emerge.

Is this the same EDTA that binds lead? Not quite. Let’s take a look at the two commonly-used EDTA salts [1+]:

  • Calcium disodium EDTA: often called simply calcium EDTA. This form is approved for lead poisoning.
  • Disodium EDTA: more effective at removing calcium. This is the form used for heart disease.

Calcium EDTA is approved by the FDA for lead poisoning since 1950. Disodium EDTA was approved for excess blood calcium and irregular heart rate but was withdrawn in 2008 due to its risk of causing mineral deficiencies. It’s currently only available at compound pharmacies [1+, 5+].

Controversial Health Claims

Despite the weak evidence (or lack thereof), alternative doctors sometimes recommend calcium or disodium EDTA for:

  • Clogged arteries and heart disease
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Diabetes
  • Brain disorders
  • Cancer

Given the risks of taking EDTA without medical supervision or for non-approved uses, the FDA issued a warning about over-the-counter chelation supplements in 2010 [6+].

Can You Get It from Food?

As a synthetic compound, EDTA is not naturally found in food. However, the FDA allows the use of calcium EDTA as a preservative in many foods, including [7]:

  • Pickled vegetables
  • Canned cooked legumes and seafood
  • Soft and alcoholic drinks
  • Sauces and dressings

Additionally, iron EDTA is used to increase the iron content of foods such as [8]:

  • Breakfast cereals
  • Wheat and maize flour
  • Fish and soy sauce
  • Curry powder
  • Vegetable oil
  • Spiced vinegar

Nevertheless, it’s added in small amounts and less than 5% is absorbed. You are unlikely to get the purported health benefits of EDTA by eating these foods [4].

EDTA Uses & Benefits

Effective for:

Lead Poisoning

Calcium EDTA has been the standard therapy for lead poisoning for over 60 years. Its ability to lower blood lead levels is a solid fact [9+, 10+, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16].

Long-term lead poisoning often causes kidney damage, especially in diabetics. Calcium EDTA slowed kidney injury caused by lead exposure in 6 studies on over 200 otherwise healthy people and almost 600 diabetics [17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22].

It was also effective in a man with brain damage from lead poisoning [23].

Lead chelation is even faster and more effective when EDTA is combined with another chelator (BAL) [24+].

A potential risk of EDTA is that it may redistribute the lead (and cadmium) trapped in the bones to the brain. To prevent this, it’s combined with DMSA, which removes heavy metals from soft tissues [25].

Other Uses

Other common medical uses of EDTA include:

  • Improving an eye disease with calcium buildup (band keratopathy) [26]
  • Removing the calcium smear layer on the teeth after dental procedures [27]
  • Preserving liquids (eye drops, sedatives, cosmetics) [28, 29]
  • Evaluating kidney function (measuring EDTA blood clearance) [30]
  • Preventing clotting in blood samples in labs [31]
  • Preventing bacterial biofilm formation in implants and medical devices [32]

Insufficient Evidence for:

Poisoning with Other Heavy Metals

Heavy metals – such as cadmium, arsenic, and mercury – pollute the food, water, air, and soil. If they build up in the body, they can seriously damage tissues. EDTA chelation therapy may increase their flushing with the urine and reduce toxicity symptoms. However, EDTA is not approved for poisoning with any of these metals due to the scarcity of studies testing its effectiveness [33, 3].

Cadmium

Calcium EDTA chelates cadmium and reduced its levels in a few studies in poisoned humans and mice. Because cadmium is very toxic to the kidneys, EDTA may be combined with glutathione to reduce kidney damage. However, chelation therapy is not approved for cadmium poisoning. Prevention of cadmium exposure and stomach decontamination by lavage or vomiting soon after ingestion are the most common measures to manage cadmium poisoning [34+, 2, 35, 36, 37+, 38].

Other Metals

Manganese buildup damages brain cells and causes symptoms similar to those of Parkinson’s. Calcium EDTA helped flush manganese in 33 poisoned people, but a different drug (PAS) is more effective at improving the symptoms [39, 40, 41, 42, 43, 44+, 45].

Calcium EDTA removed aluminum and improved brain damage symptoms in 2 trials on over 200 people with aluminum poisoning. Its combination with an antioxidant (Cellfood) also protected the brain from free radicals. However, aluminum poisoning is more commonly resolved with deferoxamine [46, 47, 48].

EDTA has been reported to improve mercury poisoning and can theoretically help with hereditary copper excess (Wilson’s disease), but other chelators (D-penicillamine and trientine) are more efficient [49, 3, 50, 51].

Limited evidence suggests that calcium EDTA may improve poisoning with several heavy metals, but different chelators work better in most cases.

Heart Disease

Heavy metal exposure increases the risk of heart disease. Heavy metals increase free radicals, damage blood vessels, and block the production of beneficial molecules (NO and hemoglobin) [52, 53+, 54+].

High lead and cadmium exposure were linked with increased blood pressure, artery clogging, and heart failure in studies on over 40K people and a meta-analysis of 30 studies [55, 56, 57, 58, 59].

According to studies on over 35K people, the excess of copper, iron, and calcium may also increase the risk of heart disease [60, 61, 62].

The capacity of EDTA to chelate these minerals and promote their flushing encouraged its use for preventing heart disease [2, 63].

Clogged Arteries

In 2 clinical trials on over 100 people with coronary heart disease, disodium EDTA had no effect on blood vessel health, exercise capacity, or quality of life. EDTA only worked as an add-on to antibiotics (tetracycline) and other supplements. The combination reduced blood vessel calcification, blood triglycerides, and cholesterol, and chest pain in a trial on 77 people [64, 65, 66].

EDTA reduced muscle fatigue in a small trial on 10 people with cut off leg blood flow and muscle cramps (intermittent claudication), but not in 3 trials on over 300 people. In 2 other trials on 88 people, it increased lead and zinc flushing but had no effect on other metals and blood fats [67, 68, 69, 70, 71, 72].

Nanoparticles with EDTA and a polyphenol (pentagalloyl glucose) helped rats with aortic aneurysms: abnormal bulges in the artery that carries blood from the heart. The combination reduced calcium deposits in the artery [73].

Three meta-analyses concluded the evidence is insufficient to recommend chelation for clogged arteries. They highlighted the potential risks, especially when used instead of proven therapies [74, 75, 76].

Complications after a Heart Attack

Disodium EDTA slightly reduced the risk of heart complications and death in a trial on over 1.7K people with a history of heart attacks; out of them, it offered stronger benefits to those with diabetes or taking high doses of vitamins, but didn’t improve fitness or general health in 900 symptom-free people [77, 78, 79, 80].

Given the promising findings of this trial in diabetic people, a new one aiming to replicate the results is underway.

Irregular Heart Rate

EDTA restored normal heart rate in people with heart disease or poisoning with foxglove (digitalis) in several trials from the 60s. Foxglove is no longer used for heart disease, while rare cases of poisoning are treated with specific antibodies [81+, 82+, 83+, 84+, 85].

Disodium EDTA is possibly ineffective for clogged arteries and irregular heart rate. It holds promise for reducing health risks in people with prior heart attacks, but further research is needed.

Diabetic Complications

Metals such as copper and iron can build up in the tissues in people with diabetes. They create free radicals, which form toxic molecules (called glycation end-products) responsible for many health complications. EDTA has been suggested to help by chelating these metals. However, the existing evidence is insufficient to support the role of EDTA in preventing diabetic complications [86, 87+].

Heart Damage

The effect of disodium EDTA at preventing complications in a trial on over 1.7K people with a history of heart attack was stronger in those with diabetes [88, 79, 78].

Copper chelation reduced the levels of this metal and improved heart failure in 2 clinical trials on 68 diabetic people and had similar results in rats. Other chelators were used in these trials, but EDTA can also bind copper [89, 90, 91, 92].

Cataracts

Both EDTA and another chelator (citric acid) prevented cataracts in rats and cells by blocking free radical formation [93, 94].

Chelation therapy with EDTA may help prevent diabetic complications such as heart damage and cataracts. However, more studies are required.

Multiple Sclerosis

A mix of genetic and environmental factors, one of them being poisoning with heavy metals, is believed to cause multiple sclerosis [95+, 96].

A study on over 200 people found aluminum poisoning in most of those with multiple sclerosis and other neurodegenerative diseases. Calcium EDTA reduced the levels of this metal (as well as mercury and gadolinium) in over 200 people with multiple sclerosis, slightly improving the symptoms [46, 96, 97].

In an old trial on 9 people with this condition, disodium EDTA improved symptoms such as vision loss, involuntary eye movements, and eye nerve palsy [98].

Both EDTA and another chelator (clioquinol) reduced inflammation, nerve damage, and multiple sclerosis progression in mice [99, 100].

Two clinical trials and two studies in mice cannot be considered sufficient evidence that EDTA helps with multiple sclerosis. Further clinical research is needed.

Skin Conditions

In scleroderma, a rare autoimmune disorder, an excess of collagen and calcium hardens the skin and soft tissues. Old studies report improvements with disodium EDTA. However, another chelator (D-penicillamine) is more commonly used nowadays [101+, 102+, 103+, 104+, 105+, 106+, 107+, 108].

In a clinical trial on 12 people and studies in rats, both a washing kit and a cream with disodium EDTA effectively removed radioactive contaminants from the skin. Larger, more robust clinical trials are needed to confirm this preliminary finding [109, 110].

EDTA prevents the growth of bacterial biofilms, which allows its use in wound care. Wound irrigation solutions, gels, and dressings with EDTA killed skin microbes and reduced wound contamination in rats and test tubes. Studies in humans are needed to confirm the potential use of EDTA in wound care [111, 112, 113, 114, 115, 116].

Rheumatoid Arthritis

Calcium chelation has been suggested as a therapy for arthritis based on the belief that it stimulates parathyroid hormone production and bone formation. Another proposed mechanism for arthritis is immune system damage by heavy metals such as lead and cadmium.

Some cases report improvements in rheumatoid arthritis and increased flushing of calcium and heavy metals with EDTA [117+, 118+, 119].

Iron buildup in the joints may worsen inflammation in people with rheumatoid arthritis. Its chelation improved this condition in humans and rats, but iron chelators other than EDTA are preferable [120, 121, 122+].

To sum up, the evidence to support the use of EDTA in people with rheumatoid arthritis is anecdotal and clearly insufficient.

Cancer

Below, we will discuss some preliminary research on EDTA’s anticancer activity. Because only a small clinical trial and three animal and cell studies have been conducted, the evidence is insufficient. Do not under any circumstances attempt to replace conventional cancer therapies with EDTA or any other unproven methods.

In a trial on 9 women with ovarian cancer given a radiotherapeutic drug, EDTA prevented its uptake into the bones. This protected the bone marrow and allowed the use of higher radiotherapy doses. It had similar effects in mice [123, 124].

In rats with colon cancer and in ovarian cancer cells, EDTA increased the effect of an anticancer drug (cisplatin) [125, 126].

After the removal of bladder tumors in mice, EDTA prevented floating cancer cells from binding to healthy tissues and forming new tumors [127].

Lack of Evidence for:

Alzheimer’s Disease

The use of chelators for Alzheimer’s is partly based on the belief that the condition is caused by the brain buildup of aluminum from drinking water, pots, foods, and deodorants. However, a recent review suggests such claims are highly doubtful [128].

Nevertheless, aluminum and other metals such as copper, zinc, and iron do build up in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s – more so as the condition progresses. But environmental exposure is not the culprit. Instead, Alzheimer’s alters the transport of these metals within the body [129, 130].

These metals may promote the formation of beta-amyloid plaques and free radicals in the brain. Chelation therapy has been suggested to prevent them from worsening Alzheimer’s, although no studies with EDTA have been carried out [131].

Three similar chelators (clioquinol, PBT2, and PA1637) slightly reduced beta-amyloid buildup and slowed brain damage in people and mice with Alzheimer’s. Researchers abandoned further trials with clioquinol because the other two were more promising [132, 133, 134, 135, 136, 137, 138].

Possibly Ineffective for:

Parkinson’s Disease

Parkinson’s causes iron buildup in the brain, which worsens free radical brain cell damage. Different iron chelators (deferoxamine and deferiprone) slightly improved the symptoms in people with this condition [139, 140, 141].

EDTA can also bind iron but doesn’t engulf it completely – instead, it forms a ‘basket’ around this metal, which allows it to produce free radicals [122+].

Copper chelation has also been suggested as a strategy for Parkinson’s. However, the approach failed to prevent this condition and even worsened it in mice [142, 143+, 144, 145].

All in all, limited evidence suggests that EDTA doesn’t improve Parkinson’s disease.

Autism

In 6 studies on over 500 children, those with autism had higher levels of heavy metals (especially lead and mercury) in the blood and hair but lower in urine. Additional analyses found the evidence weak altogether [146, 147, 148, 149, 150, 151, 152, 153].

Importantly, a study on over 1k children debunked the myth that thimerosal, a preservative with mercury often found in vaccines, causes autism [154].

There are no studies investigating EDTA for autism, but a few tested other chelators. Some of them reported a slight autism improvement [155, 156, 146, 157, 158, 159, 160].

The studies included only a small number of children and suffered from design flaws. All in all, evidence is lacking to support chelation therapy for autism. Despite this, alternative practitioners often recommend it [161, 162+].

To make matters worse, the protocol can also be dangerous. Chelation therapy with EDTA caused an autistic child to die from calcium deficiency [163].

To sum up, there is no evidence backing the use of EDTA (or any other chelators) to improve Alzheimer’s and this therapy could even be dangerous.

EDTA Supplements & Formulations

EDTA is most commonly used as an injectable calcium EDTA solution for lead poisoning. Injectable disodium EDTA also exists but is no longer approved by the FDA. Remember that chelation therapy is only recommended for treating heavy metal poisoning, where the benefits greatly outweigh the risks [1+].

Topical creams and suppositories are also sold for heavy metal detox. There is not enough research about them and their use is not approved by the FDA. You may use these creams if you and your doctor determine that they may be helpful in your case [110, 164].

Oral calcium and disodium EDTA supplements are advertised as cheaper alternatives to injected EDTA despite the lack of evidence of their effectiveness.

Oral EDTA improved lead poisoning in an old study on 5 children, but much less than injected forms. In a more recent study in 8 adults, it was ineffective at reducing iron uptake. These results are not surprising, given how little EDTA is absorbed in the gut [165+, 166, 4].

Other formulations include:

  • Ointments for skin irritation [167]
  • Eye drops [26]
  • Topical gels and creams for dental procedures [168]

Dosage

EDTA is only approved for lead poisoning. A typical dose is 2 g infused calcium EDTA per week. In severe cases, it may be raised to 30-50 mg/kg per day combined with oral DMSA [33, 1+].

Because EDTA has no other approved uses and has been insufficiently tested, there are no official or even proven doses for most conditions. In clinical trials on people with heart disease, a dose of 3 g infused disodium EDTA per week was used [169].

Oral Chelation Protocol

Oral EDTA supplements are cheaper but also much less effective than injected forms. Because heavy metal poisoning is a serious condition, consult a doctor instead of self-medicating with oral EDTA.

If you and your doctor determine that you may use oral EDTA, supplement manufacturers recommend 2-3 capsules/day along with the following:

  • Increase your mineral intake through diet or supplements.
  • Take EDTA at least 2 hours apart from meals or supplements to reduce mineral loss.
  • Combine cycles of 6 weeks on with 2 weeks off to replenish minerals.

EGTA vs EDTA

Egtazic acid (EGTA) is a chelator with a similar structure to EDTA. While EDTA is similarly attracted to calcium and magnesium, EGTA binds calcium more specifically. In turn, EGTA is more likely to cause calcium deficiency. It has one advantage: removing the smear layer from the teeth without lowering the magnesium content of enamel [170+].

EDTA Side Effects & Safety

EDTA may cause different mild and severe side effects. Because it’s normally given in a clinical setting, your doctor will generally notice them and resolve them or give you recommendations.

Reported Side Effects

Controlled doses of injected EDTA generally had no adverse effects, except for pain and inflammation at the injection site [69+, 171+].

The following adverse effects were rarely reported [66+, 172, 123+, 173, 69+, 174+]:

  • Bloating, diarrhea, and stomach pain
  • Anemia
  • Excessive thirst and sweating
  • Fever
  • Accelerated heart rate
  • Faintness
  • Kidney failure

Mineral Deficiencies

High doses or long-term therapies (especially with the disodium salt) may cause deficiencies in essential elements such as calcium, zinc, copper, and magnesium. Severe calcium deficit has even caused death in a few cases. Only take EDTA for unapproved uses if you and your doctor determine that it may help in your case and follow his or her instructions carefully to avoid this dangerous side effect [77, 175, 176, 163, 177].

Allergies

A man developed a general allergic reaction with hand itching and face eczema and swelling after the injection of an anesthetic with EDTA [178+].

Several cases of skin allergies caused by gels and lotions with EDTA have been reported. Cleaning and healthcare workers exposed to sprays with EDTA may also develop allergic asthma and rhinitis [179+, 180+, 181+, 182+, 183+, 184].

Pregnant or Breastfeeding Women

EDTA didn’t cause damage in unborn babies when pregnant women with lead poisoning used it. Because its effects are insufficiently researched, pregnant or breastfeeding women should avoid chelation therapy, unless recommended by a doctor [185].

Limitations and Caveats

The evidence to support the use of EDTA for clogged arteries is weak, with few studies, small populations, and overall negative results. Its potential to reduce adverse events after a heart attack is only promising in people with diabetes and needs to be replicated.

The use of EDTA for rheumatoid arthritis, Parkinson’s disease, and scleroderma, is only documented in case reports.

The role of chelation in Alzheimer’s and autism hasn’t been investigated with EDTA, but with other compounds that bind the same metals. In the case of autism, the studies were too small and had design flaws.

The potential benefits of EDTA on psoriasis, wound care, cataracts, or cancer have mostly been investigated in animals and cells.

Overall, more studies with larger populations are required to confirm all EDTA uses other than lead poisoning.

Takeaway

EDTA is a proven chelator. It can save lives in people with serious lead poisoning.

However, EDTA is not an all-around detox remedy. Oral supplements are poorly absorbed and probably won’t do much.

EDTA needs to be given through an IV to work. Taken unwisely, it can bind essential minerals and cause deficiencies. It should only be used under medical guidance in people exposed to high levels of certain heavy metals.

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About the Author

Carlos Tello

PhD (Molecular Biology)
Carlos received his PhD and MS from the Universidad de Sevilla.
Carlos spent 9 years in the laboratory investigating mineral transport in plants. He then started working as a freelancer, mainly in science writing, editing, and consulting. Carlos is passionate about learning the mechanisms behind biological processes and communicating science to both academic and non-academic audiences. He strongly believes that scientific literacy is crucial to maintain a healthy lifestyle and avoid falling for scams.

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