Then/Now: Mercury Amalgam Fillings & Human Health

In 1990, Morley Safer framed a 60 Minutes episode around one simple question: “Is There a Poison in Your Mouth?”

He was referring, of course, to those little “silver” fillings that many people, especially in 1990, didn’t know contain at least 50% mercury. This classic exploration of the mercury in our mouths acknowledged some facts that even today are news to a lot of folks:

  • Mercury is toxic. Really, really TOXIC.
  • Even when mercury is amalgamated – combined with other metals – low levels of mercury vapor are constantly emitted from “silver” amalgam fillings.
  • There’s no scientific evidence supporting the ADA claims that mercury or its vapors are “not going to cause a problem.”
  • FDA oversight on mercury amalgam does not include scientific oversight.
  • Patients have a right to know about the risks of mercury fillings.
  • The ADA issued gag orders and threats of prosecution for “unethical behavior” for any dentists who spoke out against mercury.

 

 
As controversial as this all was back in 1990, it did little to change dentistry. In 2015, journalists were still asking the same question: “Are the Fillings in Your Mouth Toxic?”

To this day, the ADA has the same basic spiel about mercury amalgam:

Dental amalgam is considered a safe, affordable, and durable material that has been used to restore the teeth of more than 100 million Americans.

You might notice the ADA never points toward any science that proves their claim of safety. Instead rather, they imply safety exists in numbers. They invoke the 160+ years that amalgam has been in use. It’s an appeal to tradition – and a logical fallacy (“argumentum ad antiquitatem,” if you want to get fancy and Latin about it).

Still, there’s a glimmer of light on the horizon: The Minamata Convention on Mercury. This treaty is meant to protect human health and the environment from the adverse effects of mercury. It includes steps for a “phase down” of dental mercury.

To date, mercury amalgam placement has been banned in Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Russia, and largely in Japan. In addition, the European Environmental Bureau asked European Union member state representatives to support a phase out. Though the US has signed the treaty, the government has yet to take any action.

Still, it offers some hope that someday, dentistry – and other industries – will finally be mercury-free, and our planet a better place for it.