Banner Year 2001-02:

by Charlie Brown

Three key events of the past year have neutralized ADA policies and signal our opportunity to abolish mercury in dentistry:

October 2001: The California Dental Board is shut down. After the California Dental Board spent almost a decade of defying the state Watson law, which required a "fact sheet" listing the risks of mercury dental fillings, the Legislature tires of waiting, and shuts down the Dental Board, creating a new one as of January 1, 2002. The move sends a shock wave throughout the nation, as other dental boards recognize they may no longer ignore the mercury debate and try to shut down mercury-free dentists in their states.

November 2001: Congresswoman Watson launches a campaign to phase out mercury fillings. Moving beyond consumer choice, and recognizing the injustice of a two-tiered system of mercury for the poor and choices for the affluent, Congresswoman Diane Watson announces a campaign - soon to be joined by Congressman Dan Burton - to end the use of mercury fillings for children and pregnant women immediately, and for the general public in five years. The event triggers an array of state bills across the nation, and accelerates the debate about ending mercury once and for all.

Spring 2002: The ADA gag rule becomes unraveled. The American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon announces it will sue that state's dental board unless it repeals its "gag rule" on discussing the adverse health effects of mercury fillings, based on free speech grounds. The Board retreats. Two months later, so does the ADA, who announces it has modified its gag rule to cover all kinds of filling materials. The ADA's use of state dental boards to enforce its gag rule is about to end.

These three events have created the momentum we need to launch, and to win, this national debate. And "national debate to abolish mercury fillings" is the right term, as evidenced by the substantial, and growing, media coverage of this movement. Major television stories have appeared throughout California, and in Chicago, Washington, Philadelphia, Portland, and Seattle. The issue has merited major stories in the nation's two major national newspapers, Wall Street Journal and USA Today.

The largest newspapers: in the Midwest - Chicago Tribune - page 1, in the West, Los Angeles - Times-page 1, and in the South - Atlanta Journal-Constitution!

And coverage in major newspapers in many states: Maryland (Baltimore Sun), Iowa (Des Moines Register), Oregon (Oregonian-page 1), Maine (Bangor Daily News), Washington (Seattle Times), plus the Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Sacramento Bee, and every other major California newspaper, and a courageous front page expose in the Philadelphia City Paper.

We have seen the emergence of intense interest in this cause from the nation's African-American community. Endorsements of the cause initiated by Congresswoman Watson have come from the prestigious National Black Caucus of State Legislators, the Concerned Black Clergy (Atlanta), and, significantly, the Los Angeles NAACP. In Los Angeles County, a major movement is growing, particular among the clergy, to stop the use of mercury in low-income children.

Environmental organizations, led by the path-breaking Mercury Policy Project, are a major component of this movement, and our group works closely with them. Indeed, as in the civil rights movement, a broad coalition is taking shape. The lead organization supporting abolishing mercury fillings in California is the Children's Advocacy Institute, quite appropriately as ours is first of all a children's movement. As noted above, the Oregon chapter of the major organization fighting for our free speech rights, the American Civil Liberties Union, has joined in supporting dentists' right to speak freely, as did the libertarian-oriented Goldwater Center.

We are proud that our success really, is due to an incredible cadre of dedicated volunteers. This work has meant major successes in each part of the nation. Here are the year's regional highlights:

The East: In Maine, a battle to implement a new disclosure law is over, and we won. A brochure that dentist must give to patients (albeit available via internet), has the word "mercury dental fillings" emblazoned on the front. In New Hampshire, a bill was passed with strict environmental as well as disclosure requirements. In Maryland, the Dental Board has fallen silent after years of harassing mercury-free dentists. In Pennsylvania, a state legislator is interested in a Watson-Burton style bill. In D.C., a grassroots movement was initiated with the leafleting of the Howard University dental school.

The South: The Florida dental board beat a retreat from its proposal to impose a statewide gag rule on dentists after a massive public outcry and emotional hearing. In Georgia, legislation with five co-sponsors mirrors the Watson-Burton bill, and a similar bill is promised in Alabama.

The Midwest: Hearings were held in Chicago of the Illinois House Health Committee on a proposal to ban mercury fillings. The Iowa dental board faces another assault on its gag rule, this time with a skeptical legislative and gubernatorial review process. Announcements are planned in Ohio to begin an abolition movement.

The West: In Washington, a King County council hearing drew intense public and media interest, after a bill had been bottled up in Olympia. In Oregon, the dental board repealed its gag rule. In Arizona, the dental board faces strict legislative scrutiny after its continual kowtowing to the dental association instead of protecting the public.

The California Project: The nation's most populous state, and the trendsetter state for us all, merits its own focus. We are working with: Assemblyman Dick Dickerson, who is spearheading the abolition movement in that state:

1. A 2001 study by the City of Palo Alto said mercury from dental offices constitutes 83% of all mercury in the wastewater. California's top EPA official in this area said the average dentist puts one-half GRAM of mercury PER DAY into the water supply, equivalent to the average person dumping a mercury thermometer down the sink daily.

2. Mercurochrome and merthiolate, disinfectants, are banned. A mercury-based preservative (thimerosal) has been ordered to be removed from childhood vaccines and over-the-counter cosmetics/drugs (ex. contact lens solution). Mercury thermometers are being banned in many cities and states.

3. E.g., the American Public Health Association, the California Medical Association, the American Pediatric Medicine Association.

4. Three reasons have been offered: One, that dentistry was created by a craft who used mercury in direct competition with physicians who forbade it, and is therefore wedded to it as its foundation stone. Two, that the ADA receives yearly payments from amalgam manufacturers (a point the ADA finally admitted in court), and is doing the bidding of manufacturers instead of its members. (The AMA, in direct contrast, considers taking money and endorsing products to be unethical.) Third, the ADA, like the Tobacco Council, is now too deep into promoting a toxic product that it risks all by changing its position.

5. The ADA prints deceptive brochures telling the public that amalgam is "silver" when it is 50% mercury and only 12% - 30% silver. We have filed complaints about this practice with two state attorneys general, had news conferences urging dentistry to "say the 'M' word," and even resorted to picketing the ADA and other official offices.

6. Organized dentistry spent over half a million dollars in just one state senate race -- to defeat the California author of the bill to ban mercury fillings. Dental associations are recognized as a powerful special interest group in Washington and virtually every state capital.

The new dental board, (which, thankfully, has a mercury-free dentist) to insure that it becomes a role model for other state boards fulfilling their role to protect consumers;

Environmental organizations to enforce the hazardous waste laws, and Children's and minority organizations to change the rules on Medi-cal (Medicaid).

We cannot, however, conclude on a high note, as there are many serious issues yet ahead of us. Because of this movement's success, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) emerged from a decade of hiding with a proposed rule that covers up the risks of mercury fillings and is clearly aimed at protecting the ADA. The ADA is singing the praises of a proposal that they undoubtedly knew was coming - if their lawyers didn't actually write it. Our good news of the year is tempered by a warning at the end of the impact of this proposal.

Warning: The FDA is trying to kill this movement: We face a challenge unlike any other: a federal agency, one in the ADA's pocket, is trying to use its power to demolish the state laws, cut off attention to upcoming Committee on Government Reform hearings Chaired by Rep. Dan Burton, and cover up the risks of amalgam. Even though the FDA has no Commissioner - or perhaps because of it - the ADA-controlled National Institute of Dental Research is trying to rush through a proposal without a public hearing - one that ignores all recent research, contains factual errors, and doesn't acknowledge emerging state laws. The power of the FDA is enormous. We must rally to stop this agency, which is charged with protecting consumers but which instead is choosing to protect organized dentistry.

Four Basic Reasons Why Consumers for Dental Choice Exists:

First, we must protect the health of children, whose developing brains can be harmed by any exposure to such a toxic product, exposure that is certain when the child has mercury fillings and problematical when the mother does (mercury is transported from a mother's fillings through the placenta and into breast milk).

Second, we must likewise protect the rest of the population, because the long-term exposure to mercury through dental fillings is increasingly being connected to brain diseases such as Alzheimer's.

Third, we must take special steps to assure that low-income families are not left behind. To allow "choice" to govern a decision whether poison goes into a child's mouth will most assuredly lead to a two-tier system of health, analogous to the callous societal decision of taking lead out of the paint but allowing another generation of inner city children to be exposed to it.

Fourth, we must recognize the enormous harm that mercury-based dentistry is doing to the environment - objective studies continue to recognize dentistry as the major cause of mercury in the wastewater.1

Mercury, the most toxic non-radioactive element and the volatile heavy metal, is now being removed from every use in the human body,2 save one. No health care profession, save organized dentistry, defends the use of mercury in health care, and several have called for its phase out.3 That dentistry continues to persist in advocating - and doing so vociferously - for mercury in dentistry remains enigmatic.4

In contrast to the murky reasons for organized dentistry's intransigence, the enormous success that the A.D.A. has had in maintaining mercury as its primary filling material admits of an easier explanation:
Consumer deception: The American Dental Association persists on calling the product "silver," an outrageous deception.5

Gag rule: The ADA has a gag rule in its Professional Code of "Ethics" that directs dentists not to discuss the negative side of such fillings, less the consumer choose to have the fillings removed, or, worse (for the ADA membership), abandon the traditional dentist for a mercury-free dentist.

Influence over state and federal agencies: Through state dental boards, majority dentists and frequently selected by the dental association, organized dentistry uses governmental powers to intimidate mercury-free dentists and prevent advertising of alternative methodologies. Through financial prowess6 and its control over top dental positions in federal agencies, organized dentistry provides legitimacy to a 150-year-old practice even though all over uses of mercury are discredited.

In 1996, our national umbrella organization, Consumers for Dental Choice, was created by consumer advocates, victims, scientists, and dentists to promote, first, consumer access to mercury-free dentistry; then second, informed consumer choice; and finally, third, abolition of the product. Initially, this battle was entirely defensive. We had to maintain access to the services by keeping mercury-free dentists free of license revocation actions or lesser forms of harassment. Then we were able to work for policies and programs that allowed dentists to speak and consumers to learn about their choices. In the past year, because of several key developments, we were able to begin work on our third goal: an end to mercury in dentistry.

Footnotes:

  1. A A 2001 study by the City of Palo Alto said mercury from dental offices constitutes 83% of all mercury in the wastewater. California's top EPA official in this area said the average dentist puts one-half GRAM of mercury PER DAY into the water supply, equivalent to the average person dumping a mercury thermometer down the sink daily.
  2. Mercurochrome and merthiolate, disinfectants, are banned. A mercury-based preservative (thimerosal) has been ordered to be removed from childhood vaccines and over-the-counter cosmetics/drugs (ex. contact lens solution). Mercury thermometers are being banned in many cities and states.
  3. E.g., the American Public Health Association, the California Medical Association, the American Pediatric Medicine Association.
  4. Three reasons have been offered: One, that dentistry was created by a craft who used mercury in direct competition with physicians who forbade it, and is therefore wedded to it as its foundation stone. Two, that the ADA receives yearly payments from amalgam manufacturers (a point the ADA finally admitted in court), and is doing the bidding of manufacturers instead of its members. (The AMA, in direct contrast, considers taking money and endorsing products to be unethical.) Third, the ADA, like the Tobacco Council, is now too deep into promoting a toxic product that it risks all by changing its position.
  5. The ADA prints deceptive brochures telling the public that amalgam is "silver" when it is 50% mercury and only 12% - 30% silver. We have filed complaints about this practice with two state attorneys general, had news conferences urging dentistry to "say the 'M' word," and even resorted to picketing the ADA and other official offices.
  6. Organized dentistry spent over half a million dollars in just one state senate race -- to defeat the California author of the bill to ban mercury fillings. Dental associations are recognized as a powerful special interest group in Washington and virtually every state capital.
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