Journal of Medical Toxicology

, Volume 9, Issue 4, pp 347–354 | Cite as

The Role of Chelation in the Treatment of Arsenic and Mercury Poisoning

  • Michael J KosnettEmail author


Chelation for heavy metal intoxication began more than 70 years ago with the development of British anti-lewisite (BAL; dimercaprol) in wartime Britain as a potential antidote the arsenical warfare agent lewisite (dichloro[2-chlorovinyl]arsine). DMPS (unithiol) and DMSA (succimer), dithiol water-soluble analogs of BAL, were developed in the Soviet Union and China in the late 1950s. These three agents have remained the mainstay of chelation treatment of arsenic and mercury intoxication for more than half a century. Animal experiments and in some instances human data indicate that the dithiol chelators enhance arsenic and mercury excretion. Controlled animal experiments support a therapeutic role for these chelators in the prompt treatment of acute poisoning by arsenic and inorganic mercury salts. Treatment should be initiated as rapidly as possible (within minutes to a few hours), as efficacy declines or disappears as the time interval between metal exposure and onset of chelation increases. DMPS and DMSA, which have a higher therapeutic index than BAL and do not redistribute arsenic or mercury to the brain, offer advantages in clinical practice. Although chelation following chronic exposure to inorganic arsenic and inorganic mercury may accelerate metal excretion and diminish metal burden in some organs, potential therapeutic efficacy in terms of decreased morbidity and mortality is largely unestablished in cases of chronic metal intoxication.


Chelating agents Unithiol Succimer Dimercaprol Arsenic Mercury 



This publication was supported by the cooperative agreement award number 1U61TS000117-04 from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). Its contents are the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official views of the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR).

Conflict of Interest

For the work under consideration for publication, Dr. Kosnett received an honorarium and reimbursement for travel through the ACMT/ATSDR Cooperative Agreement.


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Copyright information

© American College of Medical Toxicology 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Division of Clinical Pharmacology and Toxicology, Department of MedicineUniversity of Colorado School of MedicineDenverUSA

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