Manufacturers of gadolinium-based contrast agents have claimed that as long as a patient has healthy kidney function, there is no danger of gadolinium poisoning.  We now know this claim to be false. Hundreds of patients with normal, healthy kidneys have developed serious, debilitating medical conditions as the result of gadolinium-based contrast agents (GBCAs).

Gadolinium, first discovered by a Swiss chemist in the late 19th Century, is useful for its magnetic properties. It is employed in the manufacture of superconductors and catalytic converters.

Since the 1980s, GBCAs have been administered to patients undergoing magnetic resonance imaging, since its magnetic properties make it easier to obtain clear images of the internal anatomy.  In theory, this normally toxic heavy metal is eliminated through the kidneys, which is why manufacturers have warned against its use in patients with kidney problems.

However, for the past several years, symptoms of gadolinium poisoning have been showing up in patients with normal kidney function.  Nephrogenic systemic fibrosis, the condition that results from gadolinium toxicity, is normally a rare disease that occurs in people with kidney failure.  Primarily affecting the skin, it can also affect bones, internal organs, muscles, and tendons.  These symptoms, which can manifest within hours or even minutes after gadolinium exposure, can be crippling and are progressive and incurable.  They include:

  • thickening and hardening of the skin, primarily on the extremities
  • burning and/or itching sensations
  • blisters and ulcerated sores
  • bone and joint pain and reduced flexibility
  • possible reduced organ function
  • mental impairment

Palliative treatments are available, but in virtually all cases, there is no treatment available to completely remove gadolinium from the tissues.  This means that victims face permanent disability and chronic pain.

There are two types of GBCAs that are used in MRIs: (1) linear, and (2) macrocyclic.  Of these two forms, linear is most likely to result in gadolinium toxicity (linear GBCAs are no longer used in Europe).  This year, a study supported by the National Institutes of Health found that an alternative contrast agent containing a less toxic manganese-based compound left no traces in the tissues of lab mice. Over 99% of the substance was removed by the liver and kidneys.

If you are scheduled for an MRI, be certain to educate yourself. It is your body, and you have the right to request full disclosure from your health care provider and ask for an alternative to a GBCA.

K.J. McElrath is a former history and social studies teacher who has long maintained a keen interest in legal and social issues. In addition to writing for The Ring of Fire, he is the author of two published novels: Tamanous Cooley, a darkly comic environmental twist on Dante's Inferno, and The Missionary's Wife, a story of the conflict between human nature and fundamentalist religious dogma. When not engaged in journalistic or literary pursuits, K.J. works as an entertainer and film composer.