There is no cure for children who have been chronically exposed to low levels of lead, and even a $27,000 drug treatment can't change that. Valeant Pharmaceuticals has recently enraged a Congressman from Flint and others by increasing the price of its lead poisoning treatment drug by nearly 3,000 percent.
"Valeant Pharmaceuticals increased the price of Calcium Disodium EDTA, used to treat acute lead poisoning, from $900 to $27,000 per treatment. This is a 3,000 percent increase," Rep. Dan Kildee wrote to four House committee leaders on November 1.
Valeant Pharmaceuticals responded to the controversy in a public statement that their drug is not appropriate for kids affected by the Flint water crisis, which they say played no role in their decision to increase prices.
"Contrary to recent statements and media reports linking this product to the Flint water crisis, CDV is not used to treat elevated levels of lead in the blood that result from the chronic low-level lead exposure like that reportedly experienced in Flint, Michigan," Valeant said.
No cure for intellectual problems
CDV is a form of chelation therapy, or a drug that binds to toxins like lead in the bloodstream. The FDA approved the first oral chelation treatment for children exposed to high levels of lead in 1991.
When a group of independent researchers studied chelation therapy on children exposed to lead one decade later, they confirmed that it only worked on children exposed to extremely high amounts of lead, or the kind of exposure that puts children at immediate risk of coma, seizure, and death.
Chelation therapy, however, does not solve the type of chronic, long-term learning problems caused by low-level lead exposure, problems that kids in Flint are now saddled with thanks to their local bureaucracies.
"That's why you have to prevent lead poisoning. There is no medical treatment," Dr. Jerome Paulson, a professor in pediatrics and environmental health, tells ConsumerAffairs.
"What chelating agents do is rapidly reduce the amount of lead in the blood...but they don't help children with lower blood lead levels in terms of preventing any learning problems or brain damage or decreased IQ or those kinds of things," Paulson says. Doctors should not be prescripting chelation therapy to children in Flint, he says, and if they are, he describes such actions as unscrupulous.
"We do things kind of backwards in this country, we find kids who have elevated blood levels and then we go fix their apartments, fix their water. We really need to screen places that are hazardous and fix them before the kids get there," Paulson said.
Other reasons to fight the price increase
While American children are commonly victims of low-level lead exposure, children in third-world countries can still be exposed to lead in extreme amounts, so much so that chelation treatment is necessary to help them.
Rep. Kildee's letter to Valeant pharmaceuticals didn't actually accuse the company of price-gouging Flint’s kids, even though he is a Flint representative. Instead, he accurately points out that the World Health Organization has included Calcium Disodium EDTV on its list of essential medicines and calls for a government investigation into the price increase.
A Valeant spokesman justified the price increase to a Stat reporter by blaming low purchase volume of its product: “The list price increases over the past several years have enabled us to provide to the market consistent availability of a product with high carrying costs and very limited purchase volume of 200 to 300 units per year.”