Mercury Fillings Era Is Ending

Mercury Fillings Era Is Ending

The Trenton (NJ) Times published my op-ed on 12/31/08; see below.  It begins with this growing inevitability: “The biggest change in the history of American dentistry is about to occur. The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is on the verge of limiting the use of dentistry’s 19th-century foundation-stone, amalgam fillings.”


We thank our friends Cherie Gillen and Jon Bombardieri at Capital Public Affairs, Princeton NJ, for their enormous assistance on this project.


Happy New Year.  Folks, let’s conclude this fight as winners in 2009.

—Charlie Brown

Charles G. Brown, National Counsel     

Consumers for Dental Choice                

316 F St., N.E., Suite 210, Washington, DC 20002 

Ph. 202.544-6333; fax 202.544-6331,       

Working for mercury-free dentistry

End era of mercury fillings

December 31, 2008


The biggest change in the history of American dentistry is about to occur. The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is on the verge of limiting the use of dentistry’s 19th-century foundation-stone, amalgam fillings. Though promoted as “silver fillings,” this material is 50 percent mercury and only 25 percent silver.

Mercury is, of course, highly toxic; it can cause permanent harm to a fetus, to a child’s developing brain or an adult’s kidneys. The World Health Organization says no safe level of mercury exists. Unlike lead, whose risk becomes acute when the child licks it, mercury is notoriously volatile (it is the only metal in liquid form at room temperature), so its vapors alone can cause neurological or fetal damage. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control warns that mercury from amalgam is “a major source” of mercury exposure to our bodies.

In dentistry’s early days, no alternative existed, except expensive gold. That excuse is over. Composite, a white resin-like material, is interchangeable with mercury amalgam, albeit it takes a few moments longer to implant. That means, for upper-middle-class adults who go to modern dentists, composite is the norm. For children, working Americans, soldiers and sailors, prisoners and others receiving assembly-line dentistry, however, it is still mercury, mercury, mercury. Emmitt Carlton, a Washington lawyer testifying on behalf of the NAACP before the U.S. House Subcommittee on Wellness and Human Rights in 2003, summarized American dentistry as providing “choice for the rich, mercury for the poor.”

Dental mercury is an environmental hazard. A report by the Mercury Policy Project shows that dental offices are the largest source of mercury in the nation’s wastewater. Hence, dentistry puts an unnecessary burden on taxpayers to clean it up. Prudently, the Corzine administration ordered all dentists, effective Oct. 1, 2007, to install and maintain amalgam separators to catch mercury before it enters New Jersey‘s water supply.

This rule, written by the state Department of Environmental Protection, took another step to reduce pollution, directing dentists, “where appropriate,” to use alternatives to amalgam. Many dentists don’t need to be encouraged to quit; to their credit, between one-third and one-half of U.S. dentists have stopped using amalgam.

With the pollution, the health controversy and the social-justice disparities, the question isn’t why so many dentists have switched — it’s why so many hang onto this anachronism.

Taking an active interest in the issue is Sen. Ronald Rice, D-Newark, sponsor of a bill directing the state Department of Health and Senior Services to investigate mercury use in dental fillings and to study its health and occupational effects. Also, New Jersey Attorney General Anne Milgram led the states, with New Jersey as the lead plaintiff, to compel the Bush administration to enforce the laws against mercury pollution.

To protect their babies, pregnant women are warned not to get any unnecessary exposure to mercury, such as to avoid eating tuna. Several years ago, a report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency showed that one in eight women of childbearing age is already so mercury toxic she is at risk of having a brain-damaged baby. Imagine if a dentist, instead of using the misnomer “silver fillings,” told a pregnant patient to prepare to receive “mercury fillings.” It is safe to assume she would vacate the dental chair immediately.

So mired in mercury is New Jersey that it seeks to ship it out. The state is battling obstacles to send tons of mercury sitting in Somerset County to Nevada. Congress has, however, closed off the option of shipping New Jersey‘s mercury overseas; the Mercury Export Ban Act of 2008 bans mercury exports. The law’s lead sponsor: Sen., now president-elect, Barack Obama. Such strong action by our next president forecasts an administration that may be tough on mercury products and mercury users.

Mercury-free dentistry is more than a health and environment issue — it is a workplace safety issue. Largely female and of childbearing age, dental workers are the very persons who should be the most vigilant to avoid exposure to mercury vapors — which happens, sadly, each time a dental worker opens the amalgam capsule.

In New Jersey, private-sector workplace safety is enforced by the U.S. Occupational Health & Safety Administration (OSHA), while the public sector workplace is handled by the New Jersey Public Employees Occupational Safety & Health program (“PEOSH”).

Fortunately, New Jersey PEOSH is ahead of the nation in the arena of protecting employees from mercury; its standard is for employers to “substitute safer chemicals” for mercury. But PEOSH has not acted on our request to apply its standard to dental clinics at UMDNJ and the state prisons, choosing, to date, not even to issue an alert (an advisory about the law).

The contrast between the Corzine administration’s vigorous environmental policy against mercury and its indifference toward workplace mercury is startling. In its environmental policies, New Jersey is positioned to be the cutting-edge state in the transition to mercury-free dentistry. But unwillingness to enforce its own workplace safety policies means New Jersey is putting young female workers at risk not only for themselves, but for their present and future babies.

Charles G. Brown is national counsel for Consumers for Dental Choice. More information on the FDA settlement is on the group’s website,

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