MERCURY MADNESS – It’s time to end the mercury age of dentistry
Spring 2012 True Natural Health
By Dr Lisa Matriste, BDSc Hons (Uni of Qld)
Director, Australians for Mercury Free Dentistry
Environmental Committee, International Academy of Oral Medicine and Toxicology
Mercury, a potent neurotoxin that is also known as quicksilver, is one of the most poisonous substances on earth, known or believed to cause scores of conditions such as irritability, liver and brain damage, muscle spasticity, autistic behaviour, chronic fatigue and Alzheimer’s disease. Depending on the type of mercury and type of exposure, poisoning can lead to delirium, hallucinations, suicidal tendencies, psychosis, brain death and, of course, death outright, as was witnessed at the Minamata tragedy in Japan a number of decades ago.
People have been seduced by its mystical qualities for centuries. It is the only lustrous metal that is liquid at room temperature, and this property is the reason for its high toxicity, as it easily vaporises. Mercury vapour has no taste or colour but it can definitely be measured. The other unique features of this metal compared to the other heavy metals is that it is bioaccumulative, and it passes through the placental barrier, thus affecting our most innocent children, who inherit our toxic legacy. Mercury is lipid soluble, so it targets neurological and renal organs of the body. Elemental (inorganic) mercury is transformed by microorganisms to the more toxic form, organic mercury (methylmercury). This occurs when mercury pollutes the environment and also within our bodies’ gastrointestinal systems.
History has proven time and time again that exposure to mercury, whether it is from the elemental or organic form, is always harmful. There is no safe level of mercury exposure. The level of mercury in our environment is escalating, giving rise to global concern about the negative health impact for every living creature on our planet. Elevated mercury levels are being detected in the umbilical cord blood of our newborn babes, and high levels of mercury have been documented in mother’s breast milk. The message is clear… wherever possible, reduce your exposure to mercury. You’ll be mad if you don’t.
Currently there is a treaty being negotiated by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to coordinate global efforts to reduce mercury pollution. The coal, oil, gas and gold mining industries that use mercury have been identified and the dental industry is no exception. Most people are not aware that the so-called ‘silver’ fillings are actually composed of a mixture of 50 percent liquid elemental mercury and 50 percent silver alloy powder. This material is commonly known as dental ‘amalgam’.
The dental profession has been using this primitive, poisonous, polluting product for almost 200 years and it is hoped that as a result of the UNEP negotiations, there will be a turning point, followed by dental reform from 2018. Many countries (most of Europe, the African continent, Arab nations, Brazil, Thailand and Vietnam) are committed to seeing the phase-out of dental amalgam in order to protect their citizens from the harmful consequences of mercury exposure, wanting to adopt the precautionary principle and cease the implantation of mercury amalgam fillings into human mouths.
A QUICK HISTORY OF QUICKSILVER AND DENTAL AMALGAM
For centuries mercury has been used to extract gold and silver from their ores, and in many other industries, notoriously the manufacture of felt hats. It has been documented that anyone who works with mercury will be poisoned by it.
In early dentistry, gold, silver, tin, lead, platinum and other more obscure materials were used for filling teeth. Then, in 1819, the first amalgam of mercury and silver was invented by an English chemist, and its use in clinical dentistry commenced in England and Europe in the 1820s.
The use of this product for fillings, which conservatively contain at least half a gram of elemental mercury each, plus the silver, tin, copper and zinc alloy powder, caused controversy back then and it continues today. Just over 10 years after dental amalgam was first taken to America from Europe in the 1830s, the US dental establishment of the time declared its use to be malpractice. By the late 1850s, the new American Dental Association had been formed. It took out three patents for the product and has strongly defended its use ever since.
In spite of concerns about the safety of amalgam, it did provide a relatively cost-effective and efficient solution for the filling of decayed teeth compared to the expensive gold foil or cast gold inlays. Patients did not seem to manifest signs of acute poisoning, so amalgam became very popular. Today, although we are well informed of the bioaccumulative nature of mercury, many people do not, unfortunately, make the connection between their illnesses later in life and a dental event that occurred many years before.
Australian dental practices followed those of England, with the use of dental amalgam becoming entrenched despite warnings in the late 1990s by our leading health authority, the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), and even by the dental amalgam manufacturers themselves, such as this Dentsply statement:
“The use of amalgam is contraindicated: in proximal or occlusal contact to dissimilar metal restorations; in patients with severe renal deficiency; in patients with known allergies to mercury; for retrograde or endodontic filling; as a filling material for cast crown; in children six and under; in expectant mothers.”
Thirty years have passed since I attended university and I am mortified that there has not been any change to the dental curriculum. Dental students are being kept ignorant of the harm that mercury can do to the people who receive amalgam fillings, and they are not taught about the environmental damage caused by the tonnes of mercury amalgam waste entering the waterways each year. The students themselves are exposed to massive levels of mercury and forced to work with this toxic product without any appropriate protection. The reluctance of the dental profession to discontinue the use of mercury amalgam implies failure to protect the public, the dental workers and our environment.
Although all dentists must be competent in the placement of mercury-free alternatives prior to graduation, the emphasis at Australian universities is on the use of amalgam. (In Switzerland, amalgam restorations have not been taught to dental students for 13 years!) In clinical practice, most patients are receiving misinformation about the composition of amalgam, with dentists referring to ‘silver’ fillings and thus implying that the material has a ‘precious’ value. Furthermore, by remaining silent about amalgam’s 50 percent liquid mercury content and the risks of being treated with a mercury product, dentists are not obtaining informed consent from their patients.
Yet the large dental supply company, SDI, fully informs dentists via the Material Safety Data Sheet for its amalgam product: “…contains mercury, a chemical known to the State of California to cause birth defects or other reproductive harm… Inhalation of mercury vapours, dusts or organic vapours or skin absorption of mercury over long periods can cause mercurialism. Symptoms include tremor, inflammation of the mouth and gums, excessive salivation, stomatitis, blue lines on gums, pain and numbness in extremities, weight loss, mental depression and nervousness. Exposure may aggravate kidney disorders, chronic respiratory disease and nervous system disorders.”
Given the manufacturers’ warnings quoted above, the ultimate irony is that amalgam has never been subjected to the strict regimen the US Food and Drug Administration has enforced for all new medicines over recent decades. Amalgam was approved (‘grandfathered’ in) without actually ever having been tested for toxicity. A post-market review is required today by our own Therapeutic Goods Administration to validate the safety of dental amalgam, and patients who feel they have suffered harm from dental amalgam need to alert the TGA of their adverse reaction.
To their credit, however, half Australia’s dentists have stopped using amalgam, and the proportion of fillings undertaken using mercury amalgam fell from 68 percent in 1983 to 30 percent by the end of the 1990s. If the public were fully informed of the composition of mercury amalgam fillings, and dentists were aware of the negative environmental impact and health hazards of this material, this proportion would drop even further.
Despite younger dentists tending to move away from the use of mercury amalgam fillings, the profession as a whole has been resistant to adopting cost-effective alternative materials and phasing out amalgam altogether. The majority of amalgam fillings being placed today in Australia are in the public sector and teaching institutions that serve medically and/or financially challenged citizens, indigenous populations and the armed services and their families. The standard practice is that if an adult tooth has a hole in it, mercury amalgam should be inserted irrespective of age, gender or pre-existing health problems. This indiscriminate use of mercury needs to stop immediately. It is crucial to increase the public awareness of this issue.
The liquid mercury in dental amalgam is not locked into a set filling but escapes continuously during the entire life of the filling in the form of vapour, ions and abraded particles which are ingested. The internet video ‘Smoking Tooth’ (www.iaomt.org) shows this vapour casting a shadow on a phosphorescent screen as it escapes from a filled, extracted tooth. You can see the vapour increase if the amalgam is subjected to abrasion or heat. In your mouth, that is the equivalent of tooth brushing, tooth grinding (very common), chewing food or gum, or having a hot drink. Imagine what happens in the dentist’s chair if such a filling is removed or repaired via drilling and chipping without any protection!
The health risks of mercury amalgam fillings to dental patients arise during their initial placement and any subsequent treatment or removal of those fillings, and long term exposure through trace amounts of vapour being released, as described above, and ingestion of particles via mastication. Mobile phone usage and X-ray irradiation of the head and neck also accelerate vaporisation.
A plethora of ill-effects and symptoms
Mercury vapour from amalgam fillings passes readily through cell membranes, across the blood-brain barrier and into the central nervous system, where it causes immunological, neurological and psychological problems. Children and foetuses, whose brains are still developing, and people with impaired kidney function are most at risk, as well as certain genetically susceptible groups.
In addition to causing general oxidative damage, mercury plays havoc with metabolic enzymes, nutrient uptake (zinc, thiamine, probably methionine and more) and important detoxification systems.
Methylmercury, a far more toxic form of mercury, may result from the methylation by bacteria of amalgam-related mercury in the mouth or gastrointestinal tract. Also, the toxic effects of mercury are amplified synergistically if it is combined with other metals such as zinc, lead or cadmium.
Galvanism, an electrochemical process, occurs within an amalgam filling, since it is not just one metal, and with other metals in the mouth if they are present (such as gold fillings or metal crowns), due to differences in the electrical potential of the various metals. This process changes mercury into different forms which are easily absorbed or transported by and to different systems and tissues, right up to the highly susceptible immune cells – which is why mercury is implicated in numerous autoimmune diseases.
Symptoms of chronic mercury poisoning are non-specific and varied, and may include chronic fatigue, chemical sensitivities, fibromyalgia, immune dysfunction (including autoimmunity), diabetes, cardiovascular disease, allergies, digestive disorders, hormone imbalances, infertility, insomnia, tinnitus, psychiatric disorders and neurodegenerative problems.
Tooth and gum damage
Amalgam fillings also cause direct dental problems. Most patients don’t know and are not informed that a large amount of the perfectly healthy portion of the tooth is drilled away. For instance, a pinhead sized cavity may require the destruction of a third of the tooth. Undercuts are required to hold the filling in place by mechanical means only, because amalgam fillings are not secured by adhesive bonding.
The electrical and thermal conductivity of the metal fillings constantly causes nerve irritation, and in time can lead to death of the pulp tissue. Also, because of the metallic properties of amalgam, the filling will expand and contract with temperature changes from food and beverages. While the filling will remain intact, this can lead to stress fractures and loss of the cusps of the natural tooth, requiring more drilling and filling in the future. Teeth that have died and have root canal fillings with amalgam cores will remain a reservoir of mercury as the tooth no longer has a blood supply to detoxify it. One of the signs of mercury toxicity is gum disease with bleeding gums and mobility.
All workers involved in any way with the amalgam industry – mining, smelting, handling, manufacturing, packaging, dentistry, laundering, disposal, plumbing, sewerage – are exposed to the great health risk that mercury poses. Dental assistants, who are primarily women of reproductive age, are exposed to mercury vapours with few or no precautions to protect them. Dentists, their staff and their children have been harmed by their occupational mercury exposure.
Dental mercury pollutes the environment – and ultimately us – in five different ways. Some are quite surprising, and this will be outlined in a future edition of True Natural Health.
NEXT ISSUE – Part 2
Safe amalgam removal and alternatives
Assessing mercury exposure
If you want to have your amalgam fillings removed before reading the Summer article, I cannot stress strongly enough the importance of having this procedure carried out with the utmost safety. If not done properly, both you and your dentist are in danger. Many people have become very ill, not necessarily straight away, after unsafe removal. For a copy of the safe removal protocol and assistance in finding an endorsed Mercury Safe Dentist, please contact Australians for Mercury Free Dentistry – see box below.
Protect yourself, others and our planet …
SAY NO TO MERCURY AND GIVE YOUR SUPPORT TO
Australians for Mercury Free Dentistry
It takes courage to stand up for what you believe is right in the face of overwhelming bias, prejudice and fear of recrimination from your peers. I believe that the organisation I have founded represents the voice of the silent majority of Australians who no longer want to have the primitive, polluting, poisonous product of mercury dental amalgam implanted into their bodies. NOW is the time for Australians to find their voices and to shout out loud, NO TO MERCURY!
The final UNEP negotiation session for the Minamata Treaty will be held in Geneva in January 2013. The world is currently divided between countries which are committed to a phase-out of dental amalgam and those that want to continue using it during a long-term phase-down. With less than six months to go, Australians for Mercury Free Dentistry needs resources to continue active lobbying both in Canberra and internationally.
You can pledge your support to phase out MERCURY AMALGAM
and end the mercury age of dentistry in 2018 by:
The Australian Chapter of the World Alliance for Mercury Free Dentistry
Website: www.mercuryfreedentistry.com.au Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Telephone: 03 9939 9932 Fax: 03 9078 0397
Dr Lisa Matriste is a Melbourne dentist and leading international advocate for speeding up the phase-out of mercury amalgams in dentistry in order to protect dentists, their patients and the environment from mercury exposure. She recently lobbied at the Nairobi and Uruguay negotiating sessions for the UN Global Treaty on Mercury as part of the World Alliance for Mercury Free Dentistry delegation. Dr Matriste founded the Australian chapter to offer an informed alternative viewpoint to that of amalgam manufacturers and the pro-amalgam Australian Dental Association.
Sources and Further Reading:
mercuryfreedentistry.com.au (Australians for Mercury Free Dentistry);
iaomt.org (International Academy of Oral Medicine and Toxicology);
https://www.aima.net.au/wpcontent/uploads/2012/02/mercury_aima_position_paper_on_mercury_amalgam-final_20111.pdf (Australasian Integrative Medicine Association Inc.);
robertgammal.com; toxicteeth.org; mercola.com; mercuryexposure.info;
dentalwellness4u.com (Dr T. McGuire); mercurypoisoned.com;
asomat.com (Australasian Society of Oral Medicine and Toxicology)