Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Are your teeth toxic?

The mercury in 'silver' fillings would be hazardous waste in a river -- yet it's sitting in your mouth! A professional musician from Arlington Heights suffers from mysterious rashes and lip blisters. A dental hygienist in Hoffman Estates battles migraines. And a social worker in Prospect Heights is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

All three tried treating their ailments using a controversial method: by having dentists remove and replace their so-called "silver" amalgam tooth fillings, which contain about 50 percent mercury. And all three swear they experienced life-changing health improvements. Their personal testimonies are part of what makes dental amalgam, the silver lining for hundreds of millions of American mouths, one of the most divisive issues in dentistry.

Though it's one of the oldest materials in oral health care--used by people of all ages for the last 150 years--anti-mercury groups are pushing the startling message that mercury residing in the mouth can leach into the body and cause illness. "I thought my career was over," said Arlington Heights' Matt Comerford, now a trumpet player with the Lyric Opera who was suffering from painful sores along his gums. He began investigating the metals in his mouth and eventually had nine silver fillings replaced with a mercury-free alter-native material. "Within a week [of having the amalgams replaced], everything healed," Comerford said.

Amalgam, most dentists admit, is crude and ugly, but they say it's a valuable option because it's strong, durable and relatively cheap. And studies have shown that there is insufficient evidence to link it to health problems (with the exception of allergic reactions), according to the American Dental Association and several federal agencies, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Regardless, anti-mercury groups are appalled by the notion that the toxic element, which is considered a hazardous waste by the Environmental Protection Agency, is safe when it's packed inside a tooth.

They argue that although it was once thought to be inert inside the mouth, studies now show that mercury can be emitted in minute amounts of vapor and absorbed by the patient through inhalation and ingestion. At Doctor's Data, a Chicago lab that specializes in trace-metals analysis, clinicians have found that the amount of mercury in a person's stool is highly correlated to the number of amalgams in the mouth. "What stool testing drives home is that parts of the amalgams don't stay in the teeth and we're swallowing mercury," said Dean Bass, a chemist at Doctor's Data and a scientist at Argonne National Laboratories. "But it doesn't necessarily tell you how much mercury the body absorbs."
By Julie Deardorff

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