Modern dentistry has made it possible for people to experience better dental health than ever before, but a hidden health threat lurks in many dental fillings. That threat is mercury, a known neurotoxin. Dentists began using mercury in fillings more than 150 years ago, and its use was controversial even then. In the years since, the dental industry has tried to diffuse criticism, with some effectiveness, by using terms that mask the actual material used.
Fillings that contain mercury are often called “amalgam” or “silver” fillings, although they are generally comprised of at least 50 percent mercury. In recent years, there has been a hard-fought struggle between the advocates of conventional dentistry, who are resistant to making changes, and anti-mercury advocates who believe that at the very least, dental patients should be fully informed about the materials that are being put in their bodies.
Mercury pollution is a problem all over the world. Experts estimate mercury in tooth fillings of Americans accounts for 10 percent of global mercury consumption. The United States is one of the largest consumers of mercury in the world, and amalgam constitutes the largest usage of mercury in any products, between 35 and 57 percent. Americans released 28.5 tons of amalgam into the environment in 2009.
Recently, the United States signed and ratified the Minamata Convention on Mercury. This treat mandates a phasing down of mercury dental fillings to protect both the environment and human health. Dental health advocates argue that it is long overdue for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to require accurate labeling of dental materials and patient education to protect consumer health.
Patients have the right to know, not just what is in the materials their dentist chooses, but also that there are alternatives. Mercury-free options include composites and glass ionomers. Both of these are much healthier choices.
The use of mercury-based fillings requires removing a significant amount of healthy tooth material. This weakens the structure of the teeth and shortens its life, leading to more costly dental expenses in the long run. The World Health Organization found in studies that mercury-free materials “allow for less tooth destruction and, as a result, a longer survival of the tooth itself.”
Furthermore, when mercury amalgam is dispersed into the environment, some microorganisms are converted into methylmercury. This is a highly toxic form of mercury that accumulates in fish, shellfish and animals that consume fish. Research shows methymercury damages children’s developing brains and nervous systems, even during pregnancy.
Other countries have already taken action. Denmark, Sweden and Norway have radically reduced or completely phased out mercury-based dental fillings. As part of the process of change, the governments in these countries utilized an extensive citizen education process, ensuring patients understand the dangers of mercury-based fillings and the available alternatives.
In contrast, Americans are rarely provided that information. On a macro-level, it is important that dentists are forced to provide comprehensive and accurate information about the materials in dental fillings. On a micro-level, for you as a consumer, it is important that you choose the healthiest materials for you and your family.