Mercury and the Law

All About Mercury
The articles on this page discuss legal and political developments, their impact on the practice of dentistry and dental health consumers.
California Dentists Forced Out Of State Of Denial: The Health Risks Of Mercury Amalgam Fillings
Redacted Article: By Hal A. Huggins, D.D.S., M.S.
Alternative Medicine Magazine, May 2001
After Years of Litigation, California dentist are finally required to notify their patients that mercury fillings are a health hazard.

Disclosure at last! On November 15, 2000, the judge of the Superior Court of California in San Francisco signed a consent decree that marks a true milestone in California’s dental treatment. The link between birth defects and silver-mercury dental fillings will have to be disclosed to California dental patients after February 15, 2001.

In a landmark decision, the judge ruled that, according to Proposition 65, patients must be informed of this connection. This is a 180-degree turnaround from the American Dental Association’s policy – still current – that silver-mercury amalgams are safe and that any dentist who suggests otherwise to[their] patients can have [their] license revoked.

Officially called “The Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986,” Proposition 65 was overwhelmingly passed by California voters in order to address growing concerns about exposure to toxic chemicals. Proposition 65 contains a number of provisions, including requiring the governor to publish a list of chemicals that are known to the State of California to cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm.

This list must be updated once a year. Several hundred chemicals are already listed. Proposition 65 imposes certain controls that apply to chemicals that appear on this list. These controls are designed to protect California’s drinking water sources from contamination by these chemicals, to allow consumers to make informed choices about the products they purchase and to enable residents or workers to take whatever action they deem appropriate to protect themselves from exposures to these harmful chemicals.

Of particular interest to dental patients is the provision that businesses are:

  • Prohibited from knowingly discharging listed chemicals into sources of drinking water
  • Required to provide a “clear and reasonable” warning before knowingly and intentionally exposing anyone to a listed chemical.
In spite of the proven connection between mercury and birth defects , the California Dental Association and allied industries fought to be exempted from having to post this warning. At first they just ignored the requirement for several years. After being sued, they went through a series of legal battles. Finally, 15 years after the law was passed, as the result of a complaint filed by the Environmental Law Foundation of Oakland, California, dentists are required to post this warning.

According to the law, manufacturers of commonly used dental mercury-amalgam fillings (about 50% mercury) must warn the distributors, who in turn must warn the dentists. Here, a loophole shows up. According to the letter of the law the dentist does not have to inform the patient of the results of continual exposure to mercury unless the dentist has ten or more employees. Does this mean that birth defects are not a mercury-related factor if a dentist has only nine employees?

At the present time, if a dentist discusses mercury toxicity with a patient or suggests removal of mercury because of toxicity, he is “unethical” and subject to having his license removed.

In the 1970’s, American dentist placed nearly 1,000,000 mercury fillings daily. With the advent of the controversy over mercury toxicity, that number has reduced to about 250,00 daily, according to amalgam manufacturers. It is possible that the truth about amalgam fillings will spread across the U.S., and other states will demand the cessation of the use of mercury fillings. Other countries have already limited or stopped their use. Sweden no longer uses mercury amalgam. Germany has stated that no mercury should be placed in pregnant women or even in women who could become pregnant.

One of the more common happenings in the dental office occurs in the field of reproductive toxicity, which is a major issue in Proposition 65. Scientific literature shows that dental assistants are far more prone to spontaneous abortions, still births and the delivery of children with birth defects.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), is looking into the possibility of measuring mercury levels in dental offices. How is that going to effect the current complacency of dentists today? OSHA is permitted to levy large fines on workplaces that exceed limits for exposure to toxic chemicals. Many dental offices have been measured on an independent basis and found to exceed OSHA levels for mercury vapor.

There is agreement on the actual toxicity of mercury. Everyone is in agreement that…
1. Mercury is toxic at very low levels.
2. Mercury can alter our DNA, which can lead to birth defects.
3. Amalgam fillings contain around 50% mercury.
4. Mercury is release from amalgam fillings on a continual basis.
5. The new high-copper amalgam fillings release 50 times more mercury than previous amalgams.
6. Mercury passes through the blood-brain barrier and the placental barrier.
7. Developing fetal tissues are more subject to damage than adult tissues.

Dentistry is bracing itself for a major change in both philosophy and the methodology of randomly placing toxic substances in non-informed patients. Dentists are finding themselves potentially abandoned by the ADA, their state organization, their schools, their insurance companies, their patients and even their own employees.

One thing is for sure. The enforcement of Proposition 65 in California will almost certainly result in some dental group or organization being served up on a “silver-mercury” platter.