Earlier this month, the global mercury treaty we’ve been talking about – formally known as the Minimata Convention on Mercury – was finally signed. Although the government shut-down meant no US officials took part, the event was largely ceremonial. Each of the 140 nations that vowed to join have up to a year to actually sign the agreement.
Charlie Brown of the World Alliance for Mercury-Free Dentistry – and a critical force in getting dental amalgam included in the treaty – wrote to IABDM members of this historic event:
Greetings from Minamata, Japan, where I have just witnessed the signing of the new Minamata Convention on Mercury. By our count, 105 nations signed. As president of the umbrella World Alliance for Mercury-Free Dentistry, I am here with a delegation of nine environmental and dental nonprofit group leaders from seven nations on five continents.
To clarify, “signing” does not mean “ratify.” So the nations are not binding themselves, but indicating an intention to go home and get the treaty ratified. Also, the signature page remains open for an entire year for those who for a substantive or political reason did not sign today. (FYI, due to the lack of a federal budget, the United States has no one here and therefore could not sign.) For three years, our movement worked to make sure amalgam was included in this treaty. Now look how far we have come.
- Three years ago, a few scattered groups in developed countries were battling amalgam by themselves. Today, the World Alliance for Mercury-Free Dentistry is hosting a conference in Minamata so that environmental organizations, dental societies, and consumer associations from every region can share the projects they are working on to phase out dental amalgam.
- Three years ago, almost no government officials knew that so many dentists were still using mercury. This week, we hosted one breakfast for Asian delegates, then one for African delegates, on how to phase out dental amalgam – events packed with government officials who want to start the transition to mercury-free dentistry.
- Three years ago, amalgam use was as high as ever. Today, we are watching nations sign a treaty that requires the phase down of amalgam – a treaty that obliges nations to take at least two concrete steps in that direction, a treaty that can be amended to set a phase-out date for amalgam.
Thank you to the many IABDM dentists who made this possible. Your support over the years has meant we could get our team from six continents to these treaty sessions. It meant that we could stand eyeball-to-eyeball with the pro-mercury World Dental Association – whom we outworked, out-strategized, and out-pointed. It meant that people from developing nations could be there to speak for themselves – and personally refute the claim that they need mercury fillings in poor countries. As the staff leader coordinating the treaty meetings told me, “At the start of the treaty sessions, amalgam was not an issue. You made it into an issue.”
This is truly an important leap forward – a gift to both human and environmental health. It will do much to reduce the amount of mercury released into the environment, even as the treaty contains some significant exemptions. Perhaps most concerning is, as DAMS’ Leo Cashman pointed out in a commentary we ran last month, there is no phase-out of dental amalgam required, only a phase-down.
Here, in full, is the provision for amalgam:
Article 6 Annex C Part II – Dental Amalgam Provisions
Measures to be taken by a Party to phase down the use of dental amalgam shall take into account the Party’s domestic circumstances and relevant international guidance and shall include two or more of the measures from the following list:
(i) Setting national objectives aiming at dental caries prevention and health promotion, thereby minimising the need for dental restoration;
(ii) Setting national objectives aiming at minimising its use;
(iii) Promoting the use of cost-effective and clinically effective mercury-free alternatives for dental restoration;
(iv) Promoting research and development of quality mercury-free materials for dental restoration;
(v) Encouraging representative professional organisations and dental schools to educate and train dental professionals and students on the use of mercury-free dental restoration alternatives and on promoting best management practices;
(vi) Discouraging insurance policies, and programmes that favour dental amalgam use over mercury-free dental restoration;
(vii) Encouraging insurance policies and programmes that favour the use of quality alternatives to dental amalgam for dental restoration;
(viii) Restricting the use of dental amalgam to its encapsulated form;
(ix) Promoting the use of best environmental practices in dental facilities to reduce releases of mercury and mercury compounds to water and land.
Theoretically, one needn’t take any actual steps toward phasing out mercury amalgam. Setting goals could be enough, no follow-through required.
One other exemption of concern is thimerosol in vaccines. That gets to stay, as well as some industrial and traditional uses.
Even so, the fact that the treaty addressed amalgam at all – and has been accepted by well over 2/3 of the world’s nations – only adds to the growing sense that mercury will be phased out of dentistry eventually, that the proverbial writing is clearly on the wall. As we suggested before, feeling such pressure may prompt others to act sooner rather than later, to ease the transition to a healthier kind of dentistry.
Indeed, the ultimate goal of phase-out has now begun to seem inevitable:
“For dentists around the world, mercury-free alternatives are increasingly affordable, effective, and available,” said Dr. Lillian Ebuen of the Philippines, vice president for East Asia of the World Alliance. With thousands of dentists all over the world already “mercury-free,” she notes that all dentists could make this same transition in a short time frame.
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“Amalgam phase-downs lead us directly to amalgam phase-outs,” said Dr. Shahriar Hossain of Bangladesh, vice president for South Asia of the World Alliance. “The environmental consequences for amalgam are far too severe for developing nations to go down that road.”