Early this year, the global mercury treaty we told you about a while back was passed, adopted by 140 nations. Though hard work got dental amalgam into the treaty, much more remains to be done to get mercury out of dentistry completely.
In the following commentary, DAMS executive director Leo Cashman explains just why the fight must go on.
We are grateful to Leo for letting us reproduce this article in its entirety. It originally appeared in the July 2013 edition of Dental Truth.
UNEP Treaty Passed,
but Dental Mercury Eludes the Ban
The United Nations Environmental Global Mercury Treaty was finally approved in January and, amid fanfare, a signing ceremony will be held in October of this year in Minimata, Japan, site of one of the worst industrial mercury poisoning disasters.
For those of us in the movement to ban dental amalgam mercury fillings everywhere, for all time, we must tell you, in all honesty, there was no such ban in this treaty. Instead of banning dental amalgams along with other products having a significant mercury content, the US and other political powers, bowing to the wishes of dental industry lobbyists, gave dental amalgams separate treatment in which it was slated for a phase-down; each country of the world can then decide what measures it will take for complying with the phase-down, and the minimum requirements for that were weak and watered down. So, as far as the dental amalgam mercury issue is concerned, the treaty was a victory for the American Dental Association (ADA) and its allies seeking to largely keep the status quo.
The victory for the evil side of Big Pharma was even more blatant in the case of mercury in vaccines. Thimerosal, the deadly mercury compound used in the flu shot and in many other vaccines worldwide, was completely exempted from the treaty. The use of mercury in small scale gold mining, a serious health as well as environmental concern, also escaped being firmly and uniformly banned.
On the positive side, the treaty did manage to call for phase-out of a long list of products including switches, mercury thermometers, some kinds of fluorescent lamps, mercury blood pressure measuring devices, soaps and cosmetics by the year 2020. But it seriously fell short on uniformly curbing mercury emissions from coal burning power plants, bowing again to the political influence of big electric utility interests. We will look more closely now at the treaty’s provisions, who won, who lost, and also mention the bright side of the treaty and the process of shaping it, despite its shortcomings.
Dental Mercury Provisions that Have No Teeth
When it comes to a legal document such as a treaty, language, the choice of words, is important. The treaty called for a phase-down, rather than a phase-out or a ban. We have to examine the treaty language to decide whether the phase-down that is going to be required of all countries is going to be anywhere near as good as a phase-out and whether it could ever lead to a ban.
In dealing with the mandatory phase-down, each country will have to pick two or more phase-down measures, out of nine that are listed in the treaty, that it promises to comply with. These measures include: setting national objectives at minimizing dental amalgam use, promoting mercury-free filling materials, encouraging dental schools to train dentists to use mercury-free alternatives and restricting amalgam use to its encapsulated form. But at least two of these measures are already in place in countries like the US, Canada, Britain, Ireland and Australia, and none of these countries are anywhere near a phase-out of amalgams or a ban. This shows that the phase down measures have no teeth in them and that the phase-down served as a smoke-screen for maintaining the status quo.
We should not play along with their deception by publicizing it as a victory for our side. This smoke-screen is so disturbing that we might wonder what the real purpose of the treaty was: Was it really to protect health and the environment, or was it really to provide token concessions while maintaining the status quo for dental amalgams, mercury in vaccines and the coal burning power plant industry?
For dental amalgam mercury, the environmental aspects alone are very significant. Between 300 and 400 tons of mercury are used globally in dental amalgam mercury fillings per year. Whether the mercury from dental amalgams accumulates in a person’s body or gets excreted into a toilet and out into the sewage treatment system, dental mercury is going to cause problems somewhere. A treaty that doesn’t deal with the dental amalgam mercury problem in a firm way is an environmental and a health failure.
This treaty is an example of insider politics and money triumphing over people, their health and the environment. In the year 2012 alone, the American Dental Association spent more than $2.8 million in lobbying members of the US Congress, the EPA and other federal agencies. Much of that money went toward lobbing the US State Department, which is the agency that represented the US at the mercury treaty conferences (treaties being international). The US State Department’s stance on dental amalgam mercury was exactly what the ADA wanted and exactly what ended up being adopted in the treaty: no meaningful change, weak, fuzzy “phase-down” language, with no firm phase-out, no ban.
“The ADA is very pleased by the agreed upon provisions related to dental mercury included in the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) proposed treaty,” said ADA President Robert Faiella, DMD. He thanked the US State Department, the FDA and the EPA for their willingness “to consider and be guided by the best available scientific information pertaining to dental amalgam.”
Mercury in vaccines was excluded from the treaty. The use of mercury in vaccines remains uncurbed by the newly approved treaty. Thus, as more and more health conscious people in the US and other developed countries are rejecting mercury in flu shots and other vaccines, Big Pharma is free to export its most mercury-dangerous vaccines to millions, perhaps billions, of unwary people in undeveloped countries. Countless numbers of children and infants will suffer because of the treaty’s failure to curb mercury in vaccines.
Mercury in small-scale gold mining Small scale gold mining, also called “artisanal” gold mining, evokes a picture of small family operations, with children helping out, eking out subsistence by prospecting for gold in the creeks and rivers away from bigger, mechanized mining operations. But tragedy enters that picture as small scale mining operation results in a yearly loss of 1000 tons of mercury into the environment. The numbers of people involved are enormous, too, with small miners numbering about 15 million, including perhaps 5 million women and 600,000 children.
Mercury clings to gold avidly, and as the metal mix is heated to drive off the mercury, mercury vapor released is inhaled and released into the environment. One or two grams of mercury are lost into the environment for every gram of gold captured using the mercury process. Resulting health impacts are observed to include kidney failure, memory loss, miscarriages, respiratory failure, mental and neurological damage and even death.
Families hate the consequences of mercury poisoning but continue to be driven into small scale, illegal and dangerous gold mining after having been driven off their farm land by big corporations. They may not know that the use of mercury to amalgamate the gold is not necessary, because borax can be used instead of mercury. Using borax will make the process take longer, but borax is cheaper than mercury, and the borax does not poison the people or the environment like mercury does.
But the treaty language is weak with no uniform requirements or phase-out; rather, each country is asked to draw up strategies to reduce the amount of mercury used by small scale gold miners. We fear that the results, at least in many of the countries, will not be a ban on mercury in small scale mining, thus needlessly prolonging mercury’s harm to millions of families and to the environment.
The bright side of the mercury ban treaty The UNEP treaty and the treaty negotiation process have had an important positive side. The danger posed by mercury to human health and the environment was explained repeatedly in the media, worldwide. Mercury was accurately portrayed as a menace to humans and all living things, and a terrible menace to children and the unborn. Maybe some people will be prompted by this information to avoid mercury in dentistry and medicine.
Second, the processes of gathering for the five annual global mercury sessions gave holistic health leaders and audience of delegates from all parts of the world that was largely open to learning about the serious health impacts of mercury in dentistry and medicine. Perhaps some of these delegates will lead their countries to seriously curb or ban the mercury products that most seriously endanger their health.
Dental Truth is published periodically by DAMS, Dental Amalgam Mercury Solutions, a 501c3 tax-exempt, non-profit group that educates the public on the dental/health connection, with emphasis on mercury and other toxic hazards. To learn more, visit amalgam.org.
Image by Amancay Maahs, via Flickr