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The mercury in your mouth
Amalgam fillings may be making you sick, but many dentists don't care. And once you're sick, it's hard to find a doctor to make you better
BY JENNIFER LUNDEN
February is Dental Health Month, and Rosie Cronin wants you to know that not all dentistry is healthful. Cronin, 51, is the New Hampshire Coordinator for DAMS (Dental Amalgam Mercury Syndrome), a national group dedicated to spreading the word about the dangers of dental amalgams. She comes by the position honestly. After years of ill health — chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, food allergies, headaches, vertigo, tremors, irregular heartbeat, and early menopause — and consulting with doctor after doctor to no avail, a chiropractor finally told her to open her mouth. He counted eight mercury amalgams in her teeth and said, "There’s your problem."
Skeptical, Cronin went to an MD associated with Tufts Medical Center and had her urine tested for mercury. Twice. The level of mercury in her urine was, she says, "off the charts."
Cronin was never a big fish eater; she and her doctor deduced that the mercury in her body was leaking from the fillings in her teeth. So Cronin, desperate to recover her health, did something drastic: She had all of the amalgams in her mouth removed and replaced them with composite (white) fillings. That was in 1998. And when she walked out of the dentist’s office after having the last of her amalgams removed, Cronin couldn’t believe the difference. The tremors and vertigo were gone. Her head felt clear for the first time in years. And then, gradually, her chronic fatigue, gastrointestinal problems, and other symptoms started to go away.
Organizations like DAMS, along with some alternative health-care practitioners and insurgent dentists, have been reviving a controversy that has raged since mercury was first used to fill cavities. Mercury amalgams were introduced to the US in 1833. At that time, dentistry was performed by two different types of dentists. "Medical dentists" were doctors trained to practice both medicine and dentistry; "craftsmen dentists" had no formal education in medicine, and often doubled as barbers or blacksmiths. Medical dentists used gold to fill teeth. But mercury amalgams — made up of 50-percent mercury, along with silver, copper, tin, and zinc — were a boon to craftsmen dentists due to affordability and ease of use.
Medical dentists were leery from the start of putting such a toxic metal into people’s mouths, and the leading dental organization of the time, the American Society of Dental Surgeons (ASDS), passed a resolution declaring that using amalgams constituted malpractice. The ensuing controversy led to the collapse of the ASDS. Dentists using amalgams formed the American Dental Association (ADA), a dominant force in dentistry to this day.
The ADA continues to maintain that mercury amalgams are safe. Its "Statement on Dental Amalgam" asserts that, when combined with the other metals, mercury is chemically bound into a "hard, stable, and safe substance."
And A growing number of people question the veracity of the ADA’s claim. I am one of them.
Sick since 1989 with a host of inscrutable symptoms, ranging from chronic fatigue and depression to severe food allergies and chemical sensitivities, a few years ago I was urged by an alternative health-care practitioner to ask my doctor to test me for mercury toxicity. My doctor, Dr. Joseph Py, a DO (Doctor of Osteopathy, trained in standard medical practice and additional techniques based on a philosophy of the body’s innate capacity to heal) specializing in environmental medicine, ordered a "post provocative challenge": He prescribed a chelating agent to help push the mercury into my urine, and sent me home with a cup and a bucket, with orders to collect my urine for 24 hours. I sent a sample off to the lab. When the results came in, Dr. Py told me the mercury in my system was identified by the lab as "very elevated": five times higher, in fact, than the range considered safe.
I began a protocol of chelation to try to rid my body of the toxic metal. When I did another test almost a year later and the mercury was still elevated, I began to suspect that my mouthful of mercury amalgams might be responsible. After doing some research, I, like Cronin, decided to have them removed.
I found that some experts argue that dental amalgams are not "stable" or "safe." In fact, in recent years even the ADA has acknowledged that vapors are released from dental amalgams. PhD corrosion scientist Jaro Pleva, of Sweden, analyzed a five-year-old filling and found that almost half of the mercury had leached out. Pleva also cites a study from the Journal of Dental Research, indicating that mercury vapor in exhaled air after chewing is proportional to the number of fillings in the mouth, sometimes reaching more than the maximum allowable industrial level for mercury exposure in an eight-hour, five-day-a-week job.
In the Journal of Orthomolecular Medicine, researcher Robert Siblerud concludes from his study that immune systems were enhanced after amalgam removal, with subjects reporting significantly fewer colds, sore throats, sinus problems, and allergies. Another paper, published in the American Journal of Psychotherapy, makes a connection between mercury amalgams and mental-health problems. Subjects with amalgams reported more irritability, depression, fatigue, suicidal thoughts, anxiety, sudden anger, nervousness, and memory loss than those without.
But Dr. Mark Zajkowski, an oral surgeon working in South Portland, says studies like these are "bad science." Dr. Zajkowski pulled an infected tooth for me once. When I expressed concerns that my chemical sensitivity might make me reactive to Novocain, he noted that my physician was Dr. Py — who’s viewed as a maverick by traditional practitioners — and winced unapologetically. He observed from my records that I had recently replaced some fillings and asked if I had done that on the recommendation of Dr. Py. When I replied that I had made the decision to remove my amalgams after doing my own research, Zajkowski said, "You can’t believe everything you read on the Internet."
A year later, I called him up and interviewed him for this story. He said he remembered me.
Zajkowski likens mercury amalgams to salt, which is made by combining sodium and chloride. "Sodium itself is incredibly flammable. Chlorine gas would kill you if you inhaled it. Combined together, it’s table salt. Harmless. Same thing with dental amalgams."
Zajkowski says that the ADA’s position is supported by "every reputable scientific community," including the World Health Organization (WHO), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the US Public Health Service (USPHS).
But at a May 2003 congressional hearing on the health consequences of amalgam, Professor Maths Berlin, former chair of the WHO committee of toxicologists, explained that it was only the WHO dental division — which is heavily stacked with ADA dentists — that declared mercury amalgams safe. In fact, the WHO’s committee of mercury toxicologists concluded that dental amalgams are the largest source of mercury in adults not occupationally exposed, according to a report of the hearing in Dental Truth, the DAMS newsletter.
Sandra Duffy, an attorney from Portland, Oregon, also testified at the hearing. She reported that the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, the dental research arm of the NIH, has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on 500 studies pertaining to mercury amalgams. Only one of these studies has been published, suggesting, according to Duffy, a cover-up.
And the FDA’s track record for protecting the consumer from mercury is not stellar. (See "You’re Being Poisoned," Feb. 13.)
In fact, a number of countries are now in the process of restricting or prohibiting mercury amalgams. In Sweden, a "Dental Material Commission" — comprising representatives from the Swedish Dental Association, dental schools, the Swedish National Board of Health and Welfare, and the Swedish Association of Dental Mercury Patients — recently delivered a report recommending a total ban on mercury amalgams. Norway has significantly restricted use of amalgam. Denmark and Germany have also proposed restrictions.
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