STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne. Good morning.

Today in Your Health, a look at therapies being sold online for children with autism. We'll hear in a moment about a hormone that's being advertised as a way to improve the social skills of autistic children. We begin with a therapy that's not proven to cure autism, though it's being pedaled that way online. It does work to bring down dangerously high levels of lead. NPR's April Fulton followed one young patient.

APRIL FULTON: Sherri Oliver lives in a small town on the eastern shore of Maryland. It's a two hour bus ride to Mount Washington Pediatric Hospital in Baltimore, and she's brought her daughter, Katie.

Ms. SHERRI OLIVER: We're here for the lead clinic. Katie's got a seriously high lead level.

FULTON: Katie Dail is a fast-moving first grader with copper-colored hair. Katie has bright brown eyes but has trouble making eye contact. She doesn't really speak.

(Soundbite of yelling)

Ms. OLIVER: She has autism, okay? But she makes progress and sometimes she doesn't.

FULTON: Now, six-year-old Katie's not here for autism treatment. The treatment she's been getting, chelation therapy, is to get her lead levels down. Lead poisoning can cause serious behavioral problems and lower IQs in any child. Oliver says when Katie's lead levels are up she gets irritable and has more trouble learning.

Ms. OLIVER: She takes all of my attention.

FULTON: Lead in the body is notoriously hard to get rid of. Last year, Katie was in the hospital 19 days while nurses gave her chelation. Chelation puts a chemical into the body that binds to lead and other heavy metals and helps flush them out. But it's got a lot of drawbacks.

Ms. OLIVER: It's nasty stuff. But it had to be done.

FULTON: Nasty, Katie's mom says, because the chelation pill smells really bad.

FULTON: You ever been near a building when they're getting their roof done, you know, and the smell just gets in your mouth? That's what it smells like.

FULTON: Nurse Practitioner Barbara Moore runs the lead clinic here at Mount Washington. She says there's a worse problem with chelation. Even in the right hands, chelation can cause serious health issues.

Ms. BARBARA MOORE (Nurse practitioner): A child during chelation needs close monitoring to make sure their kidneys are able to handle the lead burden as it's being metabolized in the body, make sure their liver is Okay, make sure their white blood cell count is Okay.

FULTON: Plus, it doesn't cure the damage the metal has already done to the brain.

Ms. MOORE: What we try to do is prevent any further damage.

FULTON: In the U.S., about 250,000 kids a year under age five have high levels of lead in their blood. Only a small percentage have levels high enough to need chelation. Barbara Moore sees between 5 and 10 chelation patients a year in Baltimore.

She says the more lead-filled paint chips, dirt and toys that go into children's mouths the more likely they are to develop behavioral problems: headaches, sleeplessness - classic symptoms of lead poisoning. It's especially hard to keep an eye on the symptoms of kids with developmental difficulties like Katie.

Ms. MOORE: Katie, look at me for a minute.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MOORE: Good job. Okay.

FULTON: Moore brings Katie and her mom into an exam room. Katie watches TV while Moore listens to her breathing and reads her chart. Moore talks to Katie's mom.

Ms. MOORE: So her last lead level was 36. So it came down - what we were hoping for - slowly coming down.

FULTON: But there's a chance Katie might have to go into the hospital for more chelation if her levels get worse. Recently, a new challenge has popped up for Moore and her staff - chelation kits for sale on the Internet. The kits claim to cure autism or Alzheimer's or hardening of the arteries without professional medical help. Moore says the products aren't safe.

Ms. MOORE: I don't recommend the oral chelation that you can get over the Internet or over the counter. We don't know what the safe level is of administering to a child or to anybody else, really.

FULTON: These products haven't been shown to cure autism or treat any diseases other than heavy metal poisoning.

Recently, the Food and Drug Administration sent warning letters to eight companies selling illegal chelation therapies. FDA's Michael Levy says the agency is cracking down.

Mr. MICHAEL LEVY (Food and Drug Administration): We are very concerned that the marketers of these products are preying on the most vulnerable consumers.

FULTON: Consumers like Katie's mom, Sherry Oliver, with very sick kids. Before Oliver left the clinic, I asked her if she ever considered one of those online chelation kits.

Ms. OLIVER: I actually looked into that. And, no, absolutely not. Most of them I couldn't find out what was in them, where they were from, who made it, nothing.

FULTON: She says she doesn't want to make Katie's problems worse.

Ms. OLIVER: I just can't. I can't risk it.

FULTON: Katie and her mom bundle up for the long ride home. They'll be back in a month to get Katie's lead levels checked again.

April Fulton, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: To see photos of Katie Dail and learn more about chelation visit our website at npr.org.

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