Mercury dental fillings in 1st trimester linked to cleft palate: odds up fourfold in the first 2 months, 17-fold with multiple fillings

cleft-palate-babyWomen who have amalgam dental fillings placed during the first trimester of pregnancy are more likely to give birth to infants with isolated cleft palate, a Scandinavian study found.

In a case-control study involving 1,336 infants born in Norway during a 7-year period, women who had fillings placed in the first or second month of pregnancy had roughly quadrupled odds of giving birth to an infant with cleft palate. The odds were even higher among women who had fillings placed during multiple months of the first trimester.

Placement of fillings during these periods was rare, and the study had other limitations, cautioned lead investigator Lisa A. DeRoo, Ph.D. Still, the findings raise the possibility that fetal exposure to mercury from maternal fillings during a critical period in orofacial development may increase the risk of cleft palate.

“Since this is the first study we know of that has examined this, it is probably a little premature to answer some of the questions [about the mechanism],” she commented. “But we do think it warrants further study.”

The American Dental Association declined to comment.

Two-thirds of infants with facial clefts do not have any family history of the condition, and research has implicated a variety of environmental exposures, according to Dr. DeRoo, an epidemiologist with the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in Research Triangle Park, N.C.

Amalgam fillings continuously give off small amounts of vaporized elemental mercury, which is inhaled and can cross the placenta and accumulate in the fetus, she explained. “Among mothers who have amalgam fillings, the number of fillings they have correlates with mercury measured in cord blood and breast milk.”


Boyd Haley PhD

Boyd Haley PhD discusses his study which measured the amount of mercury released by freshly made mercury amalgam fillings

Using data from the Norway Facial Clefts Study (NCL), a population-based case-control study, the investigators assessed associations between maternal amalgam fillings and two categories of facial clefts that appear to have different etiologies: cleft lip with or without cleft palate, and isolated cleft palate.

The study involved 573 infants with facial clefts (66% with cleft lip with or without cleft palate, and 34% with isolated cleft palate) identified shortly after birth and 763 randomly selected control infants, all born between 1996 and 2001.

Within 4 months after birth, the infants’ mothers completed questionnaires asking if they had amalgam fillings placed during the first trimester of pregnancy and, if so, in which month(s).

This exposure window was chosen in light of what is known about the timing of both fetal development and mercury release after filling placement, Dr. DeRoo said.

Specifically, the fetal lip and palate close between weeks 5 and 10 of pregnancy, she explained. And “new placement of fillings leads to a transient higher mercury concentration that peaks at about eight- to ninefold normal levels about 1-2 weeks after the filling has been placed.”

Study results showed that very few of the women overall, merely 44 (3%), had fillings placed during the first trimester of pregnancy, Dr. DeRoo reported. About 27 had fillings placed in the first or second month, and 19 did so in the third month. Just 6 had fillings placed in multiple months of the first trimester, used as a measure of higher level of exposure.

In adjusted analyses, women who had fillings placed in the first or second month of pregnancy had a significant near quadrupling of the odds of giving birth to an infant with isolated cleft palate relative to their counterparts who did not have any fillings placed during those months (odds ratio, 3.6).

In addition, women who had fillings placed in multiple months of the first trimester had a significant, even greater increase in the likelihood of this outcome relative to their peers who did not have fillings placed in any of those months (OR, 17), albeit with very wide confidence intervals because of the small number with this much exposure.

“I want to point out, though, that all five women who reported having placements in both months 1 and 2 had infants with cleft palate,” Dr. DeRoo noted. “Four of them had infants with cleft palate only, and one of them had an infant with cleft lip with cleft palate.”

Placement of fillings in month 3 was not associated with an increased risk of isolated cleft palate. And placement of fillings during any of the intervals studied was not associated with a significantly elevated risk of cleft lip with or without cleft palate.

Recall bias was a potential limitation, acknowledged Dr. DeRoo. “However, we did see increased risk for only one of the cleft groups and for a specific time period,” she noted. “We might expect, if recall bias was important here, you’d see it sort of broadly across all of these categories.”

Lack of information on the number of fillings women had before or during pregnancy, and on removal of fillings–which also leads to a transient increase in mercury exposure–was also a shortcoming, according to Dr. DeRoo.


Mark Richardson PhD discusses his study
Inhalation of Mercury-Contaminated
Particulate Matter by Dentists: An Overlooked Occupational Risk

While lead researcher Lisa DeRoon describes the mercury exposure during placement as “transient”, she fails to mention the context of that exposure which is enormous. The amount of mercury exposure during placement of a freshly made mercury amalgam filling exceed all occupational safety levels for mercury vapor. OSHA’s Permissible Exposure Limit is 100 micrograms per meter of air.

A study published in the Journal of Human and Ecological Risk Assessment examined the amount of mercury contaminated particulate matter dentists are exposed to from the removal of amalgam fillings. This respirable particulate matter represents the vast majority of daily Hg exposure in practicing dentists, amounting to thousands of times over the safety limit as set by OSHA.

When the exposures in this study are added up, one gets the following levels.

Vapour inhaled during 4 removals (approx 40 minutes total) = 0.067 mg

Vapour inhaled during rest of time in office = 0.05 mg/Hg

Mercury in the particulate inhaled during 4 removals = 38 mg. 

Total = 38,117 ug Hg per day. 

When we asked Mark Richardson…”would patients be equally exposed”, here was his response…

Not exactly. Although any given patient would have the same particulate exposure during a removal, and exposure to the same vapour concentration in the breathing zone during the removal, the patient would not be exposed to the particulate of 4 removals per day (average used in paper) nor would the patient be exposed to the Hg vapour in the office air throughout the remainder of the working day (as assumed for the dentist). Finally, the patient would not be exposed day in and day out to the particulate.

In very approximate terms, the patient having a single removal would be exposed to approx 1/4th of the average daily exposure estimated for a dentist. However, the patient exposure would be considered ‘acute’ (single ‘dose’ or very short term duration) rather than chronic. 


Major Finding: Women’s odds of giving birth to an infant with isolated cleft palate were increased about fourfold if they had fillings placed in the first or second month of pregnancy and 17-fold if they had fillings placed in multiple months during the first trimester.

Data Source: Population-based case-control study involving 573 infants with facial clefts and 763 randomly selected control infants born between 1996 and 2001.

Disclosures: Dr. DeRoo reported that she had no relevant conflicts of interest.

Originally published in OB/GYN News / Oct, 2010 by Susan London


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