Mercury: Going, Going...Almost Gone

 Mercury amalgam has been used in dental restorations in Europe for almost 200 years. A decision by the European Parliament has changed that, however. The European Parliament made the decision to phase out the use of mercury in dental fillings by 2030. Legislators made the decision to eliminate mercury in an effort to prevent mercury poisoning and pollution.

Mercury is a liquid element that occurs in nature and is found in water, air and soil. It is the only metal on the periodic table of elements that exists as a liquid in its natural state. It's found in household items like thermometers and fluorescent light bulbs. It's also found in many foods. Foods high in mercury include fish like tuna and swordfish and rice. Mercury is even in high fructose corn syrup, a corn-based sweetener that is used to sweeten soda and other processed foods.

Mercury was used medicinally by ancient Chinese and Indian peoples, and has been found in tombs of ancient Egyptians. The Romans used it to color their cosmetics and paint used for frescos. Mercury sulfide, also known as cinnabar, has a bright red appearance.

Mercury amalgam fillings were introduced as a dental restoration for tooth decay in 1819 by Joseph Bell, an English chemist. Mercury was mixed with other metals- powdered tin, copper, silver and zinc. Mercury gave the mixture the pliability needed to push into the teeth to repair cavities and other spots of decay. The flexibility of mercury amalgams allowed dentists to place fillings easily. The material is fast drying and strong, which is a benefit to patients because it holds up to normal use and the wear and tear of chewing and biting.

Although mercury amalgams have their benefits, many believe its use in dental fillings is dangerous. Concerns over mercury poisoning have surrounded amalgam restorations since they were first introduced. Mercury poisoning causes a long list of symptoms, including speech and vision problems, muscle tremors and twitches, headache, nerve pain, tingling and anxiety.

"Many people with mercury amalgams are choosing to have their old restorations removed and replaced," Dr. Steven P. Rogers, D.M.D., PC., said.

Rogers practices dentistry in Grant’s Pass, Oregon. Many of his patients opt to have their fillings replaced because of their concerns over safety and health. Rogers uses biomimetic, or lifelike, materials to replace amalgam fillings.

"Mercury amalgam fillings have been found to leak mercury into the body," Rogers said.

Other people choose to have their fillings replaced for aesthetic reasons. Mercury amalgams are silver in appearance so it is obvious when a tooth has been replaced.They also discolor teeth and cause stress on the rest of the tooth, leading it to crack and break down around the filling.

The goal of biomimetic dentistry is to preserve the function of the tooth and restore the tooth to its natural function. Materials are similar in structure and color to tooth enamel, allowing fillings to blend in discreetly with the rest of the teeth. Biomimetic materials bond tightly to the tooth’s enamel, unlike amalgam fillings. This tight bond seals out bacteria, preventing further decay.

The British Dental Association agreed to phase out the use of mercury in dental restoration, albeit with reservations. The BDA believes that although mercury amalgam fillings leaks into the body and the environment, it is a safe and effective way of restoring teeth.  

The American Dental Association feels similar to their British peers and states that the amount of mercury exposure from a dental filling is less than what people experience daily from the environment or their diets.

The step-down plan will take effect in January 2018, gradually decrease the use of mercury in dental amalgam fillings until mercury is completely removed in 2030.


Dentistry Today, "Europe Votes to Phase Out Mercury Amalgams". 20 March 2017

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