Is Mercury in Fillings Really a Problem?
May 29, 2001 -- Chances are, you have had a tooth cavity that needed to be filled. It's a pretty common occurrence. But how often have you have stopped to wonder what those fillings contain -- and what you carry around in your mouth for decades?
According to the American Dental Association, or ADA, up to 76% of dentists use silver fillings containing mercury when filling a tooth. Although the substance used for silver fillings, known as amalgam, has been in use for more than 100 years, the fillings are controversial because of claims that exposure to the vapor from the mercury can cause a variety of health problems ranging from joint pain to multiple sclerosis.
The ADA maintains the fillings are safe and says studies have failed to find any link between silver fillings containing mercury and any medical disorder.
And the ADA is not alone in its position. The CDC, the World Health Organization, the FDA, and others support the use of silver fillings as safe, durable, and cost-effective. The U.S. Public Health Service has said there is no health reason not to use silver fillings, unless a patient has an allergy to a component in the amalgam. The ADA says fewer than 100 incidents of such allergy have ever been reported.
But Bill DeLong, DDS, a dentist in Ellicott City, Md., says the ADA's claim that the mercury in silver fillings doesn't cause health problems is "bogus."
DeLong, who does not use silver fillings, has been brought before his state dental board twice for talking to patients about the safety precautions he uses in his office -- including a mercury vapor detector -- when removing fillings for people who want or need them replaced.
"I had complaints ... about the fact that I discuss that with patients -- and in both instances they tried to either confiscate my instruments or get me to not discuss anything with my patients unless they bring it up first," says DeLong, one of five dentists who are suing in federal court for the right to discuss the potential harm of mercury in fillings or even post information in their offices informing patients of some of the studies that have linked the fillings to health problems.
"When people are seeking advice I think it's only right that they get to hear that there are other opinions," says DeLong, who had his own silver fillings removed 24 years ago.
DeLong uses the mercury detector to show patients how much mercury vapor is released from their fillings. Chewing and eating or drinking hot foods and beverages increase the amount of vapor that is released, although small amounts of vapor are released all the time.
The ADA insists once the filling is placed in the tooth, a person's exposure to mercury vapors is minimal.