Tech + Health

04.29.14

FDA Moves to Crack Down on Quack Autism ‘Cures’

Vaccines don’t cause autism, and cleansing ‘chelation’ therapies don’t cure it. Now some companies may face legal action against their autism-curing claims.

Certain words set off my woo alarm. Whenever I see or hear them, my senses go on alert for unfounded, overstated, or frankly false claims. “Natural” is one of them. Another is “antioxidant,” that vaguely-defined miracle ingredient sprinkled into your breakfast cereal and packed into whatever new “superfood” (yet another suspicious word) is flying off the shelves at Whole Foods, meant to stave off illness no matter how thin the evidence for its benefits.

And then there’s “toxins,” the sinister Maleficent to antioxidant’s Merryweather. If the latter will supposedly mop up all the damage your body has sustained over the years, the former is what wreaked havoc in the first place. Ridding yourself of these modern-day ill humors is the purported benefit of various celebrity-endorsed “cleanses,” despite the fact that our livers and kidneys do just fine keeping our systems’ regulated without the need for massive quantities of pineapple juice and ginger root.

I share the confusion of Dr. Donald Hensrud, a Mayo Clinic internist quoted in The Wall Street Journal saying, “Nobody has ever been able to tell me what these toxins are.” Me neither, but the word sure does sound scary!

It is bad enough when credulous but healthy people buy worthless cleanse kits and eat too much kale. But when the specious claims are directed at the parents of autistic children, the situation has gone from silly to malevolent. Caring for an autistic child can mean a lifetime of difficult, sometimes intractable challenges, and preying on the desperation of parents searching for any solution to these problems is the worst kind of deception.

Thus, it is heartening to learn that the Food and Drug Administration is going to be cracking down on some the purveyors of worthless products meant to treat or cure autism through the removal of toxins. Among the sham treatments facing possible legal action by the FDA are “chelation” therapies meant to bind and remove harmful chemicals from the body, and clay-based detox baths that claim to draw similar substances out of the body. None of them have any basis in fact, and in the case of chelation therapy can be genuinely dangerous.

Unsurprisingly, support for these kinds of useless interventions often goes hand-in-hand with vaccine denial. One need look no farther than Jenny McCarthy’s own autism Web site to find glowing testimonials to the benefits of chelation. The boogieman of unspecified “environmental toxins” is coupled with ominous reference to the number of vaccines administered in the United States at yet another site touting the marvels of “living clay.” When it comes to pseudoscience and autism quackery, it’s often all of a piece.

Unsurprisingly, support for these kinds of useless interventions often goes hand-in-hand with vaccine denial.

Of course there’s no scientific basis to any of this. While the cause of autism is unclear, there is some evidence that prenatal exposure to certain medications may play a role and that brain changes associated with autism occur before birth. Just like refusing vaccines will do nothing to reverse these changes, neither will phony detoxifying remedies.

Consumers should always have a healthy degree of skepticism when it comes to products that claim to rid their bodies of impurities they never bother to define. No one remedy is going to be broadly effective at removing a wide variety of toxins, even accepting the dubious proposition that the organ systems evolved for that function need the help in the first place. Far be it from me to question the wisdom of an Academy Award-winning actress, but Gwyneth Paltrow’s chosen cleanse guru seems like he’s peddling an expensive placebo to me.

Should Paltrow’s fans choose to follow her abstemious advice, however, that’s their business. But parents seeking treatment for the myriad problems that can arise in raising an autistic child should be protected from charlatans selling worthless or even dangerous “cures.” The promises of benefit are false, and government action to curtail this kind of fraud is long overdue.