In times like these, there are toxins that we don’t know much about – how to control them, their source, and their impact. But there are toxins that we DO know about — toxins that we know do not belong in our bodies, toxins that we can do something about. My bill addresses that very problem.
Mercury is an acute neuro-toxin. It is the most toxic non-radioactive element and the most volatile heavy metal. In recent years, it has been, or is being, removed from all health care uses, save one. Antibiotics have replaced oral doses of Mercury. The disinfectant Mercurochrome is banned. Recently, the Centers for Disease Control ordered Mercury preservatives removed from childhood vaccines. Mercury preservatives are no longer used in contact lens solutions. This year, legislatures in California and several other states banned Mercury thermometers. When Governor Gray Davis signed bills addressing Mercury in thermometers and in dental fillings, he said, “Mercury is a persistent and toxic pollutant that bioaccumulates in the environment.” In recent years, the American Public Health Association, the California Medical Association, and Health Care Without Harm have all called for the elimination of putting any Mercury in the human body.
Today, I am announcing legislation to disclose and phase-out the last major use of Mercury in the human body. The fillings that organized dentistry wrongly calls “silver” are mainly Mercury, not “silver.”
Mercury is the major ingredient in each filling, about one-half gram per. In the words of Professor Boyd Haley of the University of Kentucky, that is a “colossal” amount of Mercury in scientific terms – as much, in fact, as is in a thermometer. A teenager with six fillings has six Mercury thermometers worth of Mercury in his or her mouth.
The Mercury in the fillings is volatile, such that – as all authorities concede – poisonous vapors are constantly being emitted from the fillings, more so when one chews or passes hot liquid over the teeth. The Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry of the United States Public Health Service reports that those poisonous vapors go first to the brain and kidneys. For the developing brain – and by that I mean a child’s brain – a major health risk exists.
It is in fact children who are at greatest risk from these fillings. The government of Canada recommended back in 1996 that dentists not place fillings in the mouths of children or pregnant women. (The 1999 report on Mercury by the Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry says Mercury passes through the placenta into the developing child’s brain.) In 1997, a major manufacturer of dental amalgam, Dentsply, said that amalgam is CONTRAINDICATED (translation: DO NOT USE) for children and pregnant women, as well as for those with braces, Mercury hypersensitivities, or kidney problems. Another manufacturer, Vivadent, added a contraindication for nursing mothers. (That 1999 government report says the Mercury goes through the mother’s breast milk into the baby.)
Why don’t consumers already know this? The answer is a disappointing one. Organized dentistry is extremely divided on this issue. My bill, in fact, is supported by the American Academy of Biological Dentistry. But the American Dental Association tells the public that the fillings are safe. The ADA does not tell the public that it accepts payments from the amalgam manufacturers while it pronounces their product safe. I wish to note that the American Medical Association has a policy prohibiting the organization from taking money for product endorsements. The ADA, by contrast, accepts money from the manufacturers of the products it endorses, which certainly hurts its credibility in my mind.
The public does not know about the presence of Mercury and its risks for two reasons. First, the fillings are falsely called “silver.” This term is deceptive, because there is much more Mercury than silver in the product. It’s time to call it what it is, and quit hiding the large presence of Mercury.
Second, the ADA has a rule that gags dentists from talking about the risks of Mercury amalgam, a rule that some dental boards enforce against dentists who call for the elimination of Mercury in dental fillings. I understand that rule is being challenged by dentists in federal court in Maryland based on the First Amendment.
Developments in this area have been quite encouraging this year in my state. In 1992, as a state Senator, I wrote a law that required the Dental Board of California to write a “Fact Sheet” about the “risks and efficacies” of dental fillings. My goal was to ensure the public could make informed choices about Mercury dental amalgam. But the Dental Board continued to ignore the law and, in recent years, defy the Davis Administration’s insistence that it comply with this law. After an impasse, including the Board refusing to show up for a hearing in Los Angeles on this issue, the Legislature stepped in and shut down the Board. I am told that never before has the California Legislature shut down a board before its Sunset date expired. In January, a new Dental Board will come into existence.
A major environmental issue exists here. When removed from a patient’s mouth, Mercury amalgam is a hazardous waste, and it is often improperly disposed of. The more Mercury that goes into people’s teeth, the more of it that will end up in our water supply. I am delighted, therefore, that San Francisco-based Clean Water Action is supporting my bill, and I look forward to other environmental groups joining us in this effort.
The occupational risk is significant. Dental employees are constantly exposed to the vapors. Women in dental offices have lower fecundity (pregnancy) rates, more miscarriages, and more problem births; Mercury exposure is the likely reason. Dentists have the highest suicide rate of any profession; depression leading to suicide is consistent with a diagnosis of Mercury toxicity.
Mercury amalgam is dangerous before it is put in the mouth – any dental journal will tell you that – and it is considered hazardous waste after it has been removed. Who can conclusively say it’s safe in between, when it is in our bodies?
A major social justice, or environmental justice, issue exists here. While the public lacks informed choice, low- and moderate-income people have it worse: they have no choice at all! For families on Medi-Cal, the children get Mercury – or nothing. It is outrageous that low-income Americans are forced to have such a toxic material put in their mouths. I understand that the Rhode Island legislature adopted a law this year to provide choice in insurance plans, and that the state of Maine permits Medicaid children to get alternatives to amalgam – so, yes, we can do it differently.
Mercury, and all other poisons in the body, hurt the body’s immune system – its ability to withstand diseases and biologically harmful agents. If at any time in our nation’s history we need strong immune systems, it is now. The stronger our bodies, the more able we are to fend off biological agents that have so tragically been placed in our midst.
My bill will protect children, pregnant women, and nursing mothers immediately – regardless of their income. Henceforth, amalgam will bear warnings that they not be placed in these most vulnerable people. And there will be health warnings for all consumers of amalgam, also immediately. Then, there is a five-year phase out of Mercury amalgam. That will give dentistry plenty of time to shift to alternatives that exist in today’s market – resin, porcelain, and gold – or to develop new materials.
Dentistry says amalgam is fine because it has been in use for 150 years. This statement makes no scientific sense. We have abandoned other remnants of pre-Civil War medicine, and we have abandoned all other uses of Mercury. It is no longer a question of if, but when, Mercury dental fillings will be history. I say five more years is time enough.