PORTSMOUTH – Mercury is the second most toxic element in the periodic table, said Dr. Richard Fischer, past president of the International Academy of Oral Medicine and Toxicology. The first is plutonium, which is radioactive and has a half-life of 100,000 years.
Yet, each year dentists use 34 tons of mercury in the silver-colored amalgam fillings that are put into the teeth of their patients, and a recent Zogby poll indicates that 65 percent of New Englanders are unaware of the connection.
“These poll results make it imperative that New Hampshire do a better job in getting dentists to inform their patients of what amalgam is, and what risks it entails for their health and the environment – as current law demands,” said Doug Bogen of the Portsmouth-based chapter of Clean Water Action.
A New Hampshire law passed in 2002, and a comparable law in Maine, require that dentists provide information on the connection between mercury and amalgam fillings to their patients. Both states also require dental practices that use the amalgam to install mercury separators in their drainage systems to keep the toxin out of the local wastewater stream.
Despite passage of these laws, many environmentalists and dental consumer advocates believe consumer education about the choices available to them are still not being adequately explained.
“This (poll) shows the need for mercury fillings informed consent laws and (highlights) the fact that (current law) is not being enforced,” said former New Hampshire Rep. Hal Lynde of Pelham, who sponsored the 2002 law.
The Zogby poll supports the public’s desire for more information and choice. In New England the poll found that 87 percent want informed consent about the potential risks from mercury in dental fillings and alternatives before any treatment begins.
Dentists annually use 34 tons of mercury in amalgam fillings put into the teeth of their patients.
Photo illlustration by Jay Reiter
“It’s very rare that you find 87 percent of New Englanders in favor of anything,” said pollster John Zogby. “This shows the issue is real, and it really ought to be a wake-up call to dentists and politicians.”
The poll also lends credibility to a request by state mercury activists and legislators made recently to New Hampshire Attorney General Kelly Ayotte to enforce the current law, particularly when it comes to filling the teeth of children and women of child-bearing age who are most susceptible to the neurological impacts of mercury.
Still, the agencies that oversee the dental industry contend state laws are being followed and that there is little to fear from the mercury in fillings.
“The mercury is bound up in the elements of the amalgam and is not a health threat,” said James Williamson, executive director of the New Hampshire Dental Society. “The only possible harm is if the filling breaks down.”
Frances Miliano, executive director of the Maine Dental Association, agreed.
“The dental association stands behind the studies that show mercury in amalgam fillings poses no threat,” Miliano said. “However, we do support a patient’s right of choice.”
Miliano was talking about the alternative, composite fillings that many patients and dentists have turned to in recent years. The composite is a white substance that matches the patient’s teeth; however, installing that material requires more work by the dentist and is, therefore, more costly.
Many dental insurance plans will cover only the cost of amalgam fillings, both Miliano and Williamson said.
A report released Feb. 14 by the Mercury Policy Project, Consumers for Dental Choice, New England Zero Mercury Campaign, Sierra Club and Clean Water Action, titled “What Patients Don’t Know: Dentists’ Sweet Tooth for Mercury,” lists among its recommendations changing the guidelines for insurers.
“States should require that all state health insurance contracts award coverage for mercury-free fillings that is equal to or greater than that awarded for mercury fillings,” the report recommends.
Both state dental groups understand the concerns about the use of mercury in dental fillings and believe their memberships are in compliance with their respective state laws. They also believe consumer-driven forces will eventually force the phasing out of amalgam fillings.
“I foresee that someday composites would replace amalgams,” Williamson said.
“I can see (amalgam) use declining due to esthetics,” Miliano said.
Someday is too long for some anti-mercury advocates, however.
“We know no level of mercury exposure is safe,” Fischer said. “Any exposure to mercury has risk.
“We can’t say it will cause harm, but we know there is no benefit,” he said.