The dentist can be a real source of anxiety for many people. Aside from the obvious, somene with their fingers in your mouth, possible pain, and feelings of confinement, some of us old-timers also have concerns over the possibility of being slowly poisoned by our old amalgam fillings. The American Dental Association (ADA), Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and National Institutes of Health (NIH) all agree the fillings are safe, but are they really? The answer seems to depend on who you ask.
Amalgam fillings have been around for 150 years, and numerous U.S. agencies claim they’re safe — but not everyone agrees. Some studies have shown the mercury used to make amalgam could contribute to miscarriage, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other health issues. Let's look at the science.
Amalgam is a combination of powdered metals (usually copper, silver and tin) and elemental mercury, which is a liquid at room temperature. The mercury binds with the other metals, which harden together into a solid material inside the tooth, protecting the soft inside of the tooth from further decay and infiltration of germs. The practice of using amalgam to fill teeth dates back over 150 years.
Elemental mercury, not to be confused with the methylmercury found in fish, is virtually nontoxic to eat. The problem, or rather the concern of those who worry about these fillings, is with the mercury vapor they emit which is absorbed through the lungs and distributed to numerous organs, including the brain and kidneys. Breathing high amounts of mercury vapor can lead to mercury poisoning, which can cause cough, rash, fever, memory loss, poor coordination, tremor and kidney problems.
According to the FDA and other agencies, the amount of vapor normally released by a few fillings is perfectly safe. The American Dental Association (ADA) actually has a web page devoted to nothing but quotes from numerous health agencies on the safety of amalgam fillings. Not everyone is so confident in that stance, however.
The official word in the U.S. might be that amalgam fillings pose no threat, but numerous studies suggest otherwise. For example, a Norwegian study shows pregnant women with at least 13 amalgam-filled teeth may have an increased risk of miscarriage. A Taiwanese study has indicated amalgam may make people more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease. Another study conducted in Taiwan showed it significantly increases the chances of developing Parkinson’s disease.
Researchers in India have urged dentists in other countries to phase out amalgam fillings, citing numerous potential health risks. Some countries, like Germany, have eliminated amalgam altogether. Austria, Finland, Norway, Switzerland and the United Kingdom all recommend not using amalgam fillings in pregnant women.
All of this conflicting information seems to leave people confused and it's no wonder! Those concerned about their own exposure can ask the dentist to use a composite instead — and maybe that's best until everyone can get on the same page. It’s not quite as durable, sure, but it won’t leach out mercury vapor. One warning though: Don’t go running to the dentist to have all the pre-existing amalgam pulled from your mouth — the FDA does warn that you could get exposed to far more mercury vapor that way.
Until everyone can agree, something that seems unlikely, we must decide for ourselves whether to believe all the reassurances or just step aside and let the debate rage while choosing something else to avoid the problem.