This is a guest post written by Harmon Pearson who is currently pursing a post graduate degree in dental science. He spends time blogging about his pursuits and writing on dental care. When he is not studying, he enjoys restoring antique pendulum timepieces.
How is it that in the 21st century we continue to put a known toxic element—mercury—into our mouths? The question may seem straightforward, but the answer, curiously, is not. Mercury remains a primary ingredient in dental amalgam, also known as silver fillings. Other ingredients include copper, silver, tin, and zinc. These elements when bound with mercury form what’s typically referred to as a stable compound. It’s hard and resilient to degradation in the mouth environment making it a seemingly ideal compound for replacing small amounts of decayed or removed tooth material. Because of this, it’s remained a popular choice for dental patients requiring fillings. It’s been a popular choice since the 19th century when it was developed. Since its initial development in the mid-1800s, it has changed remarkably little.
Concerns over dental amalgam have existed since that time as well, but only became intensified, if not heated, in the early 1990s thanks in part to a segment on the CBS news program 60 Minutes when they aired a piece in late 1990 exposing the potential dangers of dental amalgam and featured notable dental amalgam critic Hall Huggins. The piece highlighted the toxic effects of mercury present in the commonly used amalgam. The program gave critics of amalgam significant footing, and the anti-amalgam movement remains strong today. But why? Why is there even an anti-amalgam movement at all?
At present, only a small number of countries have banned dental amalgam—Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. Their reasoning for the ban was two-fold. One, the apparent health risks of mercury exposure. And two, the environmental impact from both improperly disposed mercury primarily from removed fillings as well as mercury flushed out of the body and introduced to the sewage system (and so on through the treatment process). In the United States, both the American Dental Association and the Food and Drug Administration have continued to stand by their assessment that dental amalgam is safe. However, there are individuals constantly reporting suffering symptoms possibly related to mercury poisoning, including the development of multiple sclerosis (or the symptoms of MS).
With these arising complications, which patients have claimed to have been alleviated with the removal of dental amalgams, the anti-amalgam movement may be serving a critical role—protecting consumers. But, even though there are reports of people being negatively affected by amalgam, why is there little effort on part of the ADA or FDA to take this movement seriously? Is it an unwillingness to change? After all, amalgam has existed for over a century and a half. Millions of people have had amalgam placed into their teeth, and only a very, very small minority of patients has reported any issue. Maybe it’s simply not worth the effort on the part of the ADA or FDA to invest any time or money to more deeply investigate the issue.
But that doesn’t change the one solid fact that mercury is toxic to humans and composes of 50% of a typical amalgam solution (with the other 50% being the silver, copper, tin, and zinc). The claim is the mercury becomes safe due to the process of bonding to the other elements, thus making it stable. However, more current research suggests that normal wear and tear such as chewing and grinding can deteriorate the amalgam and over time particles can enter the body.
While the issue is fairly divisive among both dental professionals and researchers, it tends to leave one important group in the dust: the patients. It’s as if they’re health and well-being doesn’t really matter. Not to the FDA or ADA. Since there are alternatives to dental amalgam, the issue may be one that will slowly fade. There are resin composites that may be used in place of silver fillings, however, there is some evidence that suggests composites aren’t as long-lasting as amalgam. Again, it’s yet another issue that isn’t entirely clear—and neither is the concern that these resin composites may contain bisphenol A (BPA), which is subject to yet another, separate, controversy.
So what is the takeaway? If you are in need of fillings, the best answer is to get as much information as possible about what your dental care provider is putting in your mouth. Get that information before any procedure and put yourself in the best position to make an informed decision, since, at this point, that’s really all you can do.