Those of us who are baby boomers or older can remember playing with mercury when we were young. The thermometer broke, and you pushed the little globules around. Or you fooled around with the stuff in science class. My husband says he used to get mercury to flow over the surface of a dime and make it look really shiny. Who knew our old playmate would turn out to be such a bugaboo?

The real dangers of mercury have been recognized. Guidelines have been published to limit exposure. Instructions for safe cleanup of mercury spills are available online. This is good. Other developments are not so good. Scaremongers have demonized mercury and blamed it for everything from autism to Alzheimer’s.

Just when you thought the mercury/autism scare was finally subsiding, another mercury scare has resurfaced. The alarm has been raised (again!) about the mercury in amalgam fillings.

The Consumers for Dental Choice have published an exultant statement claiming “We have won our ten-year battle to get the Food and Drug Administration to comply with the law and set a date to classify mercury amalgam….A 180-degree reversal from FDA’s 30-year policy of protecting mercury fillings… recognizing the serious health concerns posed by amalgam in particular for children and unborn children, for pregnant women, for those with mercury immuno-sensitivity or high mercury body burdens.”

You can read the FDA’s statement for yourself. It gives a rather different impression. They haven’t said they recognize a danger; they are simply calling for public comment during a 90 day period prior to considering a regulatory change to “reclassify” mercury amalgams.

In response to inquiries, the American Dental Association issued this statement on June 5, 2008:

The American Dental Association (ADA) believes the recent settlement between the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the group Moms Against Mercury simply sets a definite deadline (July 28, 2009) for the FDA to complete what it began in 2002—a reclassification process for dental amalgam, a commonly-used cavity filling material. As far as the ADA is aware, the FDA has in no way changed its approach to, or position on, dental amalgam.

Contrary to some assertions, the FDA’s current reclassification proposal does not call for restrictions on the use of amalgam in any particular population group. It merely restates FDA’s ongoing call for public comments on that issue, as well as the findings of the most current scientific studies on amalgam….Presently, FDA has different classifications for encapsulated amalgam and its component parts, dental mercury and amalgam alloy. The FDA’s proposed reclassification, which the ADA has supported since 2002, would place encapsulated amalgam and its components under one classification.

It’s amazing how activists distort the information to make it look like it supports their ideology.

In reviewing the information on the web, I found some interesting tidbits I either hadn’t heard or had forgotten.

Some of you may remember the “smoking tooth” video. If you don’t, you can watch it smoke at this link. They show smoke rising from an old extracted tooth and claim it is mercury in large amounts. When skeptics pointed out that we were probably looking at water vapor, they produced another video to “prove” it was mercury vapor. It made me laugh out loud. Instead of testing the smoke in the video, they did an entirely unrelated test where they used a very sensitive machine to measure traces of mercury coming off a tooth in a patient’s mouth. Why on earth didn’t they just stick the sensor in the smoke? I can only guess it was because the sensor wouldn’t register water vapor.

We know that tiny amounts of mercury are emitted after vigorous chewing, but this exposure is very brief and most of the mercury is exhaled. Sure, you can measure it, but it’s highly unlikely that it has any health effects. We’ve gotten so good at measuring tiny quantities that we’re worrying about all sorts of things that are really insignificant.

In 1990, CBS aired a “60 Minutes” segment that Dr. Stephen Barrett, founder of Quackwatch, has called “the most irresponsible report on a health topic ever broadcast on network television.” Among other things, they claimed a study on sheep had proven the dangers of amalgam fillings, and they featured a woman who said that her symptoms of multiple sclerosis had disappeared overnight after her fillings were removed. Dr. Robert Baratz of the National Council Against Health Fraud is a dentist as well as a doctor; he holds an MD, DDS and PhD. He tried to ward off the disaster:

Two weeks before the 60 Minutes program aired, Dr. Baratz mailed a warning to its producer:
• The Canadian researchers prepared their amalgam with a method that has been obsolete for more than 40 years. The resultant amalgam contained excess mercury and was softer and therefore more easily worn by chewing, especially in a cud-chewing animal such as a sheep.
• The amalgams were placed in opposing teeth, so they would grind against each other. This enhanced the already enhanced rate of release of materials.
• Because rubber dams were not used when the fillings were placed, scrap amalgam was free to enter the sheeps’ mouth and be swallowed.
• The methods used to detect and calculate the amount of mercury absorbed were not valid.
• Although the researchers claimed that body mercury levels rose during the experiment, they had not measured the levels that were present in the beginning. The data actually showed that the animals swallowed a lot of free mercury during the placement of the fillings.
• Their claim of kidney toxicity was based on urinary findings that show just the opposite of what is known to occur in mercury poisoning in humans.
Baratz and at least one other knowledgeable critic also spoke by telephone to “60 Minutes” producer Patti Hassler before the program was aired. But they encountered a stone wall.

To make matters worse, that wonderful sheep study involved only 6 sheep, 2 of which were controls. It was a BA-A-A-A-AD study any way you look at it. (Sorry about the pun).

Dr. Stephen Barrett tried to explain to CBS that the woman’s supposed overnight cure was impossible because removal of mercury amalgam fillings temporarily RAISES mercury levels.

In 1995, Hal Huggins lost his license to practice dentistry. The judge’s conclusions can be read here.

The judge’s report is hair-raising. Huggins had developed indiscriminate tooth extraction into a big industry and was training other dentists. He diagnosed “mercury toxicity” in every patient even if they didn’t have any fillings! He told patients that mercury amalgam fillings caused: tremors, seizures, MS, ALS, Alzheimer’s disease, emotional disturbances, depression, anxiety, unprovoked suicidal thoughts, lupus, scleroderma, rheumatoid arthritis, unexplained heart pains, high and low blood pressure, tachycardia, irregular heartbeat, osteoarthritis, chronic fatigue, “brainfog,” digestive problems, and Crohn’s disease.

Huggins’ ideas are still going strong. There is a Huggins Applied Healing website. On the main page, they list MS, chronic fatigue, ALS, depression, and auto immune diseases as examples of mercury toxicity. Further into the website you can find many more illnesses including “Gulf War Disease” that can be cured by having your fillings removed “properly” by dentists trained in the Huggins method.

Apparently “Dr. Huggins and his team train the individual doctors to practice the Huggins Protocol safely” but he is not involved in the actual treatments. (Remember, he lost his license). The program offers nutritional advice based on Your Ancestral Diet as determined by blood tests. It also offers supplements, acupressure, etc.

I hope the FDA will keep its head, but there is a disturbing precedent. The “precautionary principle” was invoked to remove thimerosal from vaccines. They had not found any evidence that it caused harm, but they wanted to bend over backwards just in case some child might be overburdened by mercury from other sources and the mercury in thimerosal might add to that burden. Their reasoning was not made clear to the public, and the anti-mercury militia claimed it as a victory and an admission that the mercury in vaccines harmed children. They could invoke the same precautionary principle to demand that children (or everyone, for that matter) should never be exposed to one unnecessary molecule of mercury and that mercury amalgam fillings should be abolished. That would be a big mistake. We have every reason to think they are safe, and they offer some real advantages over other types of fillings.

The mercury militia doesn’t seem to understand that toxicity is in the dose, tiny amounts of toxins are harmless, and we can’t make the world a 100% safe place. The precautionary principle is a good one in moderation, but taking it to extremes is likely to do more harm than good.

As of June 5, 2008, the American Dental Association announced, “Based on extensive studies and scientific reviews of dental amalgam by government and independent organizations worldwide, the ADA believes that dental amalgam remains a safe, affordable and durable cavity filling choice for dental patients.”

We ask “cui bono” – who benefits from policies? Dentists could make a lot more money by pulling teeth and replacing fillings. The ADA dentists are acting against their own financial interests and in the interests of their patients, just as they have done in the fluoridation controversy.

Kudos to those who follow the science and not the dollar.
Ten lashes with a wet noodle (that’s a euphemism – I don’t want to use profanity here) to dentists who recommend removing amalgam fillings.

Posted by Harriet Hall

Harriet Hall, MD also known as The SkepDoc, is a retired family physician who writes about pseudoscience and questionable medical practices. She received her BA and MD from the University of Washington, did her internship in the Air Force (the second female ever to do so),  and was the first female graduate of the Air Force family practice residency at Eglin Air Force Base. During a long career as an Air Force physician, she held various positions from flight surgeon to DBMS (Director of Base Medical Services) and did everything from delivering babies to taking the controls of a B-52. She retired with the rank of Colonel.  In 2008 she published her memoirs, Women Aren't Supposed to Fly.