For the greater part of the 20th Century, it wasn’t difficult to tell if someone had received dental work to repair cavities. Most every one of these people wore that familiar metallic look, indicating the presence of amalgam fillings. These days, noticeable, metallic filling have given way to modern tooth-colored fillings made out of porcelain or composite resin. Unfortunately, although amalgam fillings are far less common today, they continue to be a popular topic of conversation.
What Are They Really?
Amalgam fillings are alloys of various metals; however, the one that gets the most attention is mercury, which typically makes up about half the filling’s composition. In the 1800s, amalgam became the chosen material for dental restoration due to its strength, durability, ease of application and low cost. In recent years, however, its use has declined thanks to concerns over health, environmental pollution and aesthetics.
Concerns over Mercury
Because mercury is a highly toxic substance, even small amounts of exposure can cause damage to the lungs, kidneys and brain. Many health professionals have expressed concern that amalgam fillings may be a major source of mercury exposure for humans; however, to this point, major public awareness hasn’t caught up to these worries. A 2006 Zogby International poll found that 72 percent of 2590 U.S. adult respondents had no idea that amalgam fillings contained any mercury at all.
That said, researchers have been mulling the situation for some time. A Swedish study of autopsies found a noticeable correlation between the number of amalgam fillings in cadavers with mercury levels in the kidneys and brains; and a German study determined that mercury urinary excretion was noticeably greater in subjects who had amalgam fillings.
Not Everyone Convinced
Despite numerous studies that suggest a link between symptoms of mercury exposure and amalgam fillings, the Food and Drug Administration has issued a statement asserting that there has been no “valid” scientific evidence proving that amalgam fillings cause harm to patients; however, because symptoms of mercury poisoning are often vague, many people could in fact have them without even knowing.
Additionally, although the federal government doesn’t recognize amalgam fillings as a threat to dental patients, it has strict rules governing the manner in which dentists dispose of the materials, thanks to environmental concerns regarding mercury pollution. Many dentists argue that if there are environmental regulations on how to safely dispose of these fillings because of their mercury content; why should patients be okay with having them in their body?
What You Can Do
Although there is great debate amongst the scientific community regarding the safety of amalgam fillings, the World Health Organization (WHO) has made its position clear, estimating that amalgam contributes to 50 percent of mercury exposure in adults. According to WHO, habits such as gum-chewing and bruxism can lead to a 5.3 fold increase in leeching.
According to Dr. Joseph Serra of Detroit, Michigan, he sees a lot of patients who are interested in having their amalgam fillings replaced either due to health concerns or because they want a more natural look.
“It is a controversial issue,” he said. “We like to inform our patients of the concerns, especially if they come to us about whether or not they should replace their metal fillings, and let them decide what’s right for them. There’s no question that composite and porcelain materials offer improved aesthetics. We don’t offer amalgam fillings.”
If you’re worried about your amalgam fillings, you can have them replaced by modern tooth-colored fillings made out of porcelain or composite resin. On the other hand, if you choose to keep them, you may want to heed the WHO’s warning and give up chewing gum.
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Ryan Lawrence writes for Off-Topic Media. Photo: acerra lorenzo. Thanks to Dr. Joseph Serra for contributing to this story. Dr. Serra can be reached at his Detroit office, The Michigan Center for Advanced Dentistry.