Mercury is one of the most toxic elements out there in nature. In its natural form, and as organic compounds, this heavy metal can cause severe and long-lasting damage to living things, including humans. And yet, for the last 150 years, dentists have been using mercury in dental amalgams, used to fill cavities in patients' mouths.
Understandably, there has been a raging debate regarding the safety of dental amalgams, especially in recent years. The anti-mercury campaigners gained a victory of sorts in 2017 when the European parliament enacted a partial ban on the use of dental amalgams. But this ban is only effective in cases involving pregnant women, and young children under the age of 15.
And it is only effective in the European Union, which accounts for nearly half the mercury consumption for dentist use. In the rest of the world, amalgams are still widely preferred for dealing with cavities. In fact, major professional bodies and institutions in the US, like the FDA and ADA firmly support the use of dental amalgams.
This begs the question: if mercury is so toxic, why are dental amalgams still so popular in this day and age? We have largely phased out mercury thermometers and bulbs.
What Are Amalgams And Why Are They Still Used In Dentistry
In chemistry, any alloy of metals containing mercury is called an amalgam. Mercury has always fascinated humanity due to its strange properties. It is one of the few metals that exist as liquids in their pure states. It readily combines with many other metals to form alloys or amalgams.
In dentistry, tooth extraction is generally considered as the last resort in most cases. If you have small cavities, the easiest option is to fill it up with dental fillings. And dental amalgams are the cheapest and one of the most effective options out there. Each dental filling contains 50% mercury. So, if you really want to avoid having mercury in your mouth, floss often! You can check out an effective flosser here.
Dental amalgams are usually an alloy of mercury with powdered metals like silver, tin, and copper. These components are packaged separately in capsules. When a dentist mixes them at the clinic, the liquid mercury combines with the metal powder to form a soft and pliable putty. This putty is easy to work with, but soon hardens into a durable solid substance.
Alternatives to amalgams are available in modern dentistry. These include composite resins and glass ionomer fillings. These modern materials do not contain mercury and have a white color that blends well with surrounding teeth. But they are much more expensive, harder to install, and less durable as well.
What Are The Dangers Associated With Mercury
Mercury is highly toxic to human health. It is very dangerous in its elemental form and as organic compounds. Radioactive substances like plutonium are probably more dangerous than mercury, but your chance of exposure to them is far less. Mercury, on the other hand, is generally recognized as a global pollutant. Common industrial activities like coal burning and cement manufacture release tons of mercury vapors into the atmosphere.
The main toxic effects of mercury occur as a result of inhalation of vapors and fumes. Its main impact is on the nervous system, leading to severe effects on the brain, muscles, movement, and cognition. Even in tiny doses, it can severely affect the human fetus in the womb and cause serious birth defects and mental retardation. Long-term exposure leads to a condition called Minamata Disease.
Methylmercury is the most dangerous form of this element in nature. It is an organic compound formed by bacteria. Mercury released by pollution into nature is converted to this compound and finds its way into the ocean and water bodies, where it accumulates. Mercury poisoning is often caused by eating of contaminated fish and shellfish.
How Is This Connected To Dental Amalgams
Since mercury is such a dangerous and toxic substance, its use in dentistry always has raised criticism and concerns. And the fact that amalgams usually release mercury in the form of vapors also complicates the issue. Critics argue that these trace vapors enter your body through the respiratory system, causing damage in the long term.
But current scientific research does not back this claim. The main reason is the relatively tiny amount of mercury used in a filling. Current studies suggest that these dental amalgams do not release enough toxic vapor to cause any significant damage to human health (but only in adults, young children are susceptible to mercury).
And mercury-based fillings have been in use for over 150 years now. If there was any significant health hazard, it should have become evident by now. This is one of the main reasons why the FDA and other dentist organizations still support the use of dental amalgams.
But Why The Bans Then?
Dental amalgams may be safe, but they still contain mercury. Manufacture, handling, and disposal of amalgams do release mercury into the ecosystem. Waste from dental clinics contains higher levels of mercury. Cremation of bodies with dental fillings releases mercury into the atmosphere. So indirectly, dental amalgams still cause damage to the environment and human health.
We have already largely phased out mercury-based thermometers and light bulbs. Many governments are actively trying to reduce mercury emissions. And some estimates suggest that nearly 10% of global mercury productiongoes into amalgams. This is why there are active steps to prevent or at least discourage the use of dental amalgams.