When Dr. Glaros decided to make his practice mercury-free, it seemed a radical move. It was 1984. Most American dentists were blissfully unaware that dental amalgam was, in the words of Sam Ziff, a “toxic time bomb,” owing to its high mercury content. They didn’t understand that this potent neurotoxin is constantly released from amalgam fillings with every bite, swallow and clench, or how it builds up in organs like the liver and brain where it is methylated – turned into its most toxic, illness-inducing form.
But he had been studying the science. He had been learning from Dr. Hal Huggins and other esteemed clinicians and researchers. He had weighed the evidence, searched his conscience and knew that ending amalgam use was the right thing to do for his patients, his staff and himself.
To this day, our practice is both mercury-free and mercury-safe. And not such an anomaly anymore: About half of all American dentists are now mercury-free, and change seems to be happening at a faster clip than we thought possible those 28 years ago.
Just last month, for instance, the NYU College of Dentistry announced a policy change that puts them on the path to being amalgam-free:
- All treatment plans should consider alternative restorative materials other than amalgam.
- Existing amalgam restorations that are deemed clinically acceptable should NOT be replaced.
- Amalgam will still be available at the supply area and will require justification by faculty for placement.
- Students will still receive pre-clinical training in the use of amalgam with special attention to the indications and contra-indications.
- Strict mercury hygiene when using amalgam will be maintained in both the clinic and pre-clinical settings.
While the letter announcing these new guidelines said that the decision was made from concern over environmental mercury pollution – nearly 30 tons of mercury makes its way from dental offices into wastewater supplies every year – it’s an important step. As go the dental schools, so go the dentists.
Around the same time that this news came out, a report was released on how Norway’s amalgam phase-out is working out. Its authors found that
- Use and release of mercury are substantially reduced.
- Experiences with the alternatives to dental amalgam are generally positive.
- Abatement “end-of-pipe” costs lower than dental amalgam phase-out costs.
That is, they found it does cost more to phase-out mercury than merely to contain emissions. But this, the report urges, is no deal-breaker. Why not? Because the long-term goal is to eliminate mercury pollution. As less amalgam is used and more replaced with nontoxic materials, those “end-pipe” costs will gradually dwindle to zero. The phase-out costs are thus an investment.
You can read the Executive Summary at – and download the entire report from – MercuryExposure.info.
Meanwhile, a new European Commission report is recommending a total phase-out of mercury in the EU by 2018. Like the other documents mentioned above, this report
primarily focuses on the environmental impacts of dental amalgam as opposed to the health effects of having mercury, a potent neurotoxin, in your mouth. According to the authors of the report, dental amalgam is “a significant contributor to overall EU environmental emissions of mercury from human activities.” The situation is identical in the US. Still, the report offers plenty of evidence suggestive of the potential health ramifications of the archaic and downright barbaric practice of placing mercury in your teeth.
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[This report] comes at the heels of another notable report – this one by the World Health Organization (WHO), which also urges “a switch in use of dental materials” away from amalgam. The report was the outcome of a meeting on oral health convened in 2009. WHO noted the following three reasons for the new position:
- Amalgam releases a “significant amount of mercury” into the environment, including the atmosphere, surface water, groundwater, and soil.
- Dental amalgam raises “general health concerns.” The report observes: “According to the Norwegian Dental Biomaterials Adverse Reaction Unit, the majority of cases of side-effects of dental filling materials are linked with dental amalgam.”
- Alternative dental restoration materials are available. The report cites studies indicating that many alternatives are superior to amalgam, and states that “alternative restorative materials of sufficient quality are available for use in the deciduous [baby] dentition of children”—the population whose developing neurological systems are most susceptible to the neurotoxic effects of dental mercury. Perhaps more important than the survival of the filling, WHO asserts that: “Adhesive resin materials allow for less tooth destruction and, as a result, a longer survival of the tooth itself.”
The times are indeed a-changin’!