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Mercury Filling Warnings Worthwhile

Thursday, June 27, 2002

MAINE VOICES: Kathleen McGee

Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.

Last year the Maine Legislature passed a historic bill sponsored by Sen. Mike Michaud and Rep. Steven Stanley, the toughest thus far in the country, that requires informed consent of the patient prior to the placement of dental mercury amalgams (dental fillings).

The original bill asked for both informed consent (all patients receiving fillings must be told the hazards of mercury amalgams to their health and the environment) and a ban on mercury amalgam placement in children and pregnant and nursing women. The bill was reworked to include only informed consent, though we believe a ban is inevitable as the data come in on the hazards of mercury amalgams.

MERCURY is clearly a neurotoxin and has been implicated as an endocrine disrupter and possibly a cause of autoimmune disorders. It is particularly hazardous to young children and a developing fetus. Exposure to mercury can cause devastating, irreversible problems in a developing brain. It may also be a factor for our older generation in the form of Alzheimer's disease.

The mercury exposure and disposal problems are being tackled by forbidding its use in thermostats and switches, by eliminating mercury in vaccines and by reducing mercury in florescent lights and other mercury-containing products. Industry sees this freight train of a trend.

Well, most industry - except the dental industry.

Mercury arrives in a dentist's office as a hazardous material, and must be treated as such. Remnant mercury leaves the dentist office as hazardous waste, and must be treated as such. But the dental industry would have us believe that like alchemists in days of old, wishing to turn lead to gold, the mercury in our mouths somehow, some way, is no longer hazardous.

In a Maine Voices column May 31, we were told by a practicing dentist that the Legislature ignored "scientific fact" and supported "junk science" in developing the new law. He went on to insist that Sens. John Martin and Mike Michaud would "not allow the American Dental Association to provide valid information contradicting the junk science they chose to rely on."

I'M NOT SURE what hearing and workshops he attended, but the ADA and MDA were well represented throughout the process and put a great deal of pressure on the powers that be.

Sen. Michaud not only ushered through the bill, but insisted on language for the informed consent brochure that is much more protective of health and the environment than had originally been written by the Bureau of Health.

The momentum has started in Maine to raise the awareness about the hazards, both to health and the environment, of mercury dental amalgams. An even stronger bill was just passed in New Hampshire. We consider this a great victory, especially for the health of our children.

The ADA continues to claim that the mercury in fillings is "bound" and can cause no harm. This is untrue. First, mercury vapor is released in the mouth. The levels are higher every time we chew or drink hot liquids. Gum chewers and people who grind their teeth produce alarmingly high levels of mercury vapor. Our bodies absorb about 90 percent of this vapor.

THE DENTAL industry claims the levels in mercury amalgams are not high enough to be of concern. Again, this is simply not true. We know to be concerned about breaking a single thermometer (a study was done in New York City that showed dangerously high mercury levels in a home many years after a thermometer had broken in a bathroom).

We should be concerned about producing a constant flow of mercury vapor that is immediately absorbed into our bodies. Mercury vapor readily passes through both the brain and placental barriers. This can be devastating to a developing brain.

Several countries have put restrictions on mercury amalgams for pregnant women and for young children.

The mercury that is discharged from dental offices enters our lakes, rivers, streams and oceans and there it methylates. When mercury methylates it becomes extremely toxic. While mercury vapor is extremely toxic when inhaled, methylmercury is extremely toxic when ingested.

Dental offices use 40 to 60 tons of mercury every year and release tons of mercury into our environment. The mercury problem will not go away without taking clear measures.

Kathleen McGee (e-mail: kmcgee@gwi.net) of Bowdoinham is director of the Maine Toxics Action Coalition.

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