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The Environmental Threat of Dental Mercury
 

Dental amalgam, a 50% mercury product, currently accounts for between 240-300 tons of mercury entering the market every year.  In the United States, dental offices are the second largest user of mercury – and this mercury eventually ends up in our environment by one pathway or another.  Dental mercury from amalgam pollutes:

  • water via not only dental clinic releases and  human waste (amalgam is by far the largest source of mercury in our wastewater);
  • air via cremation, dental clinic emissions, sludge incineration, and respiration; and
  • land via landfills, burials, and fertilizer. 

Once in the environment, dental mercury converts to its even more toxic form, methylmercury, and becomes a major source of mercury in the fish people eat. The cost of cleaning up this environmental hazard is high.  According to studies, amalgam is “more expensive than most, possibly all, other fillings when including environmental costs.”    

But the cost of not cleaning up dental mercury from our environment is even higher.  The environmental health effects of amalgam are well known, and have recently been reiterated by the United States Environmental Protection Agency: brain damage and neurological problems, especially for children and the unborn babies of pregnant women. 

With dental mercury uncontrollably entering the environment from multiple pathways, phasing out amalgam and transitioning to non-mercury alternatives is the only way to reduce – and eventually eliminate – this significant source of mercury that threatens our environment and ultimately our health. 

 

Consumers for Dental Choice takes on dental mercury pollution

In 2009, the nations, under the auspices of the United Nations Environmental Programme, announced negotiations for a treaty to address all man-made sources of mercury pollution…including amalgam.  And Consumers for Dental Choice – the leading organization devoted to stopping the use of dental mercury – was ready to take action. 

With the first of five treaty negotiation sessions fast approaching in February 2010, Consumers for Dental Choice’s executive director, Charlie Brown, knew it was time to organize the mercury-free dentistry advocates from around the globe into a strong voice for patients, dental workers, and the environment.  With just 100 days until the negotiations were set to start in Stockholm, Charlie Brown started contacting mercury-free dentistry activists from around the world, proposing that they all work together to make sure that the nations addressed amalgam at the mercury treaty negotiations. 

The response was enthusiastic – and intense as the international work began immediately.  In no time at all, Consumers for Dental Choice and its new allies decided to form the World Alliance for Mercury-Free Dentistry, a coalition dedicated to stopping dental mercury pollution.  Charlie Brown was elected president.

The opposition was formidable.  The pro-mercury World Dental Federation (FDI) – backed by funding from amalgam manufacturers and distributors and even candy-makers – had already gone so far as to move its entire headquarters to Geneva, home of both the World Health Organization and pertinent United Nations Environmental Programme offices, in order to lobby full-time for an exemption for amalgam in the mercury  treaty. 

Clearly, Consumers for Dental Choice and its new-found allies had their work at the treaty negotiations cut out for them. 

 

Consumers for Dental Choice puts amalgam on the table at mercury treaty negotiations

At the first of five negotiating sessions for the mercury treaty, held in Stockholm in June 2010, Consumers for Dental Choice and its multinational team were there in force – running an information booth, distributing scientific literature, giving presentations, networking with like-minded organizations, educating delegates, and convincing the world that it must find a solution to the dental mercury problem. 

“I can’t say enough about our team,” says Charlie Brown.  “We joined forces with the outstanding leaders of our movement in other major countries, such as Servando Pérez-Dominguez of Spain, Marie Grosman of France, and Angela Kilmartin of Great Britain; with Elisabet Carlsson, the advocate whose work led to a ban on amalgam in Sweden; with dentists such as Dr. Graeme Munro-Hall of Great Britain, Dr. Raimondo Pische of Italy, and Dr. Christer Malmström of Sweden who came armed with the science supporting our position; and with the multi-lingual talents of Anita Vazquez Tibau of California and Kathy Huddlestone of France.”

The World Dental Federation – which is like the pro-mercury American Dental Association on steroids – was caught unawares.  The amalgam issue had moved from the back-burner to the front and center: dental mercury had emerged as a major issue for the nations to address in the treaty. 

In October 2010 came the first fruits of the collective labor of Consumers for Dental Choice and its allies from around the world.  The staff of the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) presented its first draft for a treaty – and listed amalgam as one of the top five mercury products to be phased out.  As UNEP explained, “The product types listed in this draft annex collectively account for about 80 per cent of the mercury consumption for all mercury-added products.  Thus, they would be the most important products to address under the mercury instrument.”  Consumers for Dental Choice was determined to keep amalgam on that list. 

And so it did.

At the second negotiations session held in Chiba, Japan in January, Consumers for Dental Choice’s Charlie Brown again assembled an outstanding – and diverse – team consisting of leaders from five continents plus three mercury-free dentists:  Dominique Bally of Cote d’Ivoire, Dr. Lillian Lasaten-Ebuen of the Philippines, Dr. Naji Kodeih of Lebanon, Dr. Graeme Munro-Hall of Great Britain, Juliet Pratt of New Zealand, Dr. Dave Simone of the United States, and Anita Vazquez Tibau of the United States.

Together, they asked the nations to support five common-sense steps to phase-down – and ultimately phase-out – amalgam use:

  • educate patients and parents about amalgam’s mercury content, the neurological risks, and the environmental consequences;
  • reform insurance policies and government-funded medical programs in order to give priority to mercury-free alternatives;
  • protect children and fetuses, two subpopulations almost universally recognized as more susceptible to the neurotoxic effects of mercury vapor, from amalgam exposure;
  • educate dentists about dental mercury pollution and the benefits of alternatives; and

promote the use of atraumatic restorative treatment (ART) – a low-cost, mercury-free technique that is particularly well-suited for rural areas of developing countries. 

Instead of responding to Consumers for Dental Choice’s proposed strategies, the World Dental Federation (FDI) stonewalled – they blamed parents for children’s cavities and all but lobbied for funding for their Global Caries Initiative to prevent cavities (a program that FDI representatives privately acknowledged would in fact increase access to mercury fillings and result in more mercury entering the environment!).  Charlie Brown pointed out that if FDI wanted to reduce cavities, it could stop accepting money from one of its leading corporate partners: the Mars/Wrigley candy colossus (who surely would not be paying FDI money if it believed FDI was serious about impeding children’s access to sugar). 

In Chiba no specific decisions were made about any product, so amalgam and all other decisions were tabled until the third negotiating session to be held in Nairobi in late October 2011.  In latest draft of the treaty following this second negotiating session, amalgam remains on the list of mercury products to be phased out (although what form this list will take is still being debated).  Terms that would require amalgam separators and encapsulated amalgam (as opposed to bulk bottled amalgam) also made it into this second draft. 

But everything is still in up in the air until the third negotiating session in Nairobi, where the nations’ delegates will hammer out treaty terms, starting from this latest draft of the treaty. 

 

The U.S. government supports the “phase out” of amalgam

As an organization based in the United States, Consumers for Dental Choice worked to educate its own government about dental mercury pollution and the many mercury-free alternatives to amalgam.  Last March, Consumers for Dental Choice’s diligence paid off:  the U.S. government, in its official submission to UNEP, called for both the “eventual phase out” of amalgam and prompt “phase down” steps, including many of our recommendations, such as:

  • “educating patients and parents,”
  • “protect[ing] children and fetuses,” and
  • “training of dental professionals on the environmental impacts of mercury in dental amalgams.”

 From a government whose device regulator (FDA) had previously refused to educate the public about amalgam’s mercury content or take any steps to protect vulnerable populations, it was a welcome – even spectacular – development for the cause of mercury-free dentistry!

Now other governments from around the world are joining the push for mercury-free dentistry: The Arab League, the African region, the Council of Europe, and numerous developing nations are now calling for the phase-out of amalgam. 

 

Join the Campaign for Mercury-Free Dentistry --
Help Consumers for Dental Choicefight dental mercury worldwide!

But the battle’s not won yet – there are still three treaty negotiating sessions to go and the World Dental Federation is determined to protect amalgam to the bitter end.  

Consumers for Dental Choice went from working only in the United States to now leading the battle for mercury-free dentistry both worldwide and on the home front.  Its financial needs are much greater than ever.  So we ask for your help!

Please consider a donation to Consumers for Dental Choice, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization dedicated to advocating mercury-free dentistry.

 

Donations can be made online at http://www.toxicteeth.org/donate.cfm.  Checks can be mailed to:

 

Consumers for Dental Choice
316 F St., N.E., Suite 210
Washington DC 20002

Thank you for supporting mercury-free dentistry!

 

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