Understanding Methyl Mercury and Mercury Vapor

methyl-vaporOne of the most essential arguments in the anti-amalgam movement relates to the issue of human exposure to mercury vapor, which is a side-effect of dental amalgam fillings.1,2 Often euphemistically referred to as “silver,” amalgam fillings are actually 45-55% metallic mercury,3 and as such, mercury vapor is continuously emitted from them.4 The output of mercury vapor can be intensified by the number of fillings present and other activities associated with the human mouth, such as chewing, teeth-grinding and the consumption of hot liquids.5, 6

The first step in understanding this hazardous but often overlooked route of mercury poisoning requires a basic chemistry lesson. Mercury, as in the case of water, can exist in different forms: most notably, it can be found as metallic mercury (referred to as quicksilver or elemental mercury, such as that in amalgam fillings), inorganic mercury compounds (salts), and organic mercury (including methylmercury). Like most respected state and world health groups, the United States Environmental Protection Agency warns that mercury in the form of methylmercury is highly toxic.8 In addition to posting warnings about the methylmercury found in certain types of seafood,9 the EPA offers a basic explanation as to how methylmercury is created:

When mercury falls in rain or snow, it may flow into bodies of water like lakes and streams. When it falls out of the air as dry deposition, it may eventually be washed into those bodies by rain. Bacteria in soils and sediments convert mercury to methylmercury. In this form, it is taken up by tiny aquatic plants and animals. Fish that eat these organisms build up methylmercury in their bodies. As ever-bigger fish eat smaller ones, the methylmercury is concentrated further up the food chain. This process is called ‘bioaccumulation.’10

Thus, if a person digests a fish containing methylmercury, the person is exposed to a more evolved form of the element that has been amassed and built up over time. Based on this premise, the large majority of public health officials concur that methylmercury poses a blatant threat to susceptible parts of the human population.

The most infamous case of methylmercury poisoning from fish happened when a factory leaked a large amount of mercury into Minamata Bay, Japan during the 1950s. According to Dr. Lynn Goldman of the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Minamata accident resulted in 41 deaths and over two dozen documented cases of brain injury to infants born to mothers who ate toxic fish from Minamata Bay during their pregnancies.11 Controversy over the accident still remains, and journalist David Sanger reported in an article for The New York Times that the Minamata disaster actually resulted in up to 1,000 deaths and over 8,000 complaints of severe health complications ranging from loss of hearing or sight to brain injury.12 With all of this in mind, numerous state, national, and global environmental groups have been quick to caution the public about the possible presence of methylmercury in certain types of fish and shellfish and to recommend that pregnant women and children restrict these food products in their diet.13, 14, 15, 16 Yet, when one takes the precautions about consuming seafood into account, an ominous question arises: how can one type of mercury be dangerous in fish and shellfish but another type be safe in dental fillings drilled into teeth which are an essential part of processing all air, food, beverages and other foreign substances that are ingested into the human body via the mouth?

First, it should be emphasized again that most health officials and environmentalists agree upon the horrific potential of methylmercury and bio-accumulation as evidenced by the tragedy at Minamata Bay. Consequently, governmental groups and other authorities have been active in attempting to raise public awareness about emissions of mercury into the environment from industries, products and practices that involve mercury such as…

  •  
    • coal-fired power,17, 18, 19
    • thermometers,20 21 22 23
    • compact fluorescent light bulbs,24 25 26 27
    • gold,28
    • batteries,29 30
    • electrical switches,31
    • cosmetics,32
    • chloralkali,33
    • crematoriums,34 35
    • the religious rites of Santeria,36 37 38
    • and dental offices.39 40 41

Even the ADA has taken action to establish proper disposal methods of dental amalgam waste so as not to cause mercury pollution in the environment.42 However, the ADA continues to defend the safety of mercury fillings in the human mouth:

While questions have arisen about the safety of dental amalgam relating to its mercury content, the major U.S. and international scientific and health bodies, including the National Institutes of Health, the U.S. Public Health Service, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration and the World Health Organization, among others have been satisfied that dental amalgam is a safe, reliable and effective restorative material.43

Unfortunately, this statement disregards the overwhelming evidence provided by organizations and countries around the world about the catastrophic effects that dental amalgam, its waste and its mercury vapor can have on the environment and on human beings.

One reason that these agencies are able to avoid the issue of amalgam is that the vapor discharged by fillings exists in a different form than methylmercury, the universally agreed-upon most toxic state of the element. Nonetheless, various government officials in this country and other parts of the globe have recognized that such lesser-known forms of mercury are likewise objectionable and unsafe. In 2009, 19 members of the United States Congress wrote a letter to the FDA expressing their concern about mercury used in amalgam fillings, with a focus on potential dangers to pregnant women and children.44 Additionally, the governments of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark have banned the use of mercury fillings in dentistry,45 Germany and Canada have limited their use for pregnant women,46 47 and France, Finland and Austria have recommended that alternative dental materials be used for pregnant women.48 The ADA’s official position on amalgam fillings includes remarks insinuating that the World Health Organization considers dental amalgam to be a safe material (see above), but conversely, at least one other document prepared for the WHO warns otherwise by citing over a dozen studies implicating mercury fillings as being a possible culprit in the ill-health of people.49 Hence, information has already been disseminated that amalgam and mercury vapor, like methylmercury, also pose a grave threat to human beings.

Moreover, extensive research and a staggering number of international studies thoroughly document the specific health risks associated with the use of dental mercury. Scientific data from reputable scientists all over the world investigates how the presence of amalgam fillings can relate to

  •  
    • cardiovascular problems,50 51
    • hearing loss,52
    • kidney ailments,53 54 55 56
    • absorption of heavy metals in the brain,57 58
    • dysfunction of the immune system,59 60 61
    • Lou Gehrig’s Disease,62 63
    • multiple sclerosis,64 65 66 67 68
    • allergies,69 70 71 72
    • autism,73
    • chronic fatigue syndrome,74 75 76 77
    • Alzheimer’s Disease,78 79
    • and a myriad of other health problems.80 81 82 83 84 85 86

 

Not surprisingly, concerns have also been raised about the safety of dental personnel who work with amalgam.87 88 89 90 91 92 93 94 In spite of these studies and the fact that the American Society of Dental Surgeons, the predecessor to the ADA, made its members pledge not to use mercury because of its known toxicity,95 the ADA, FDA, and other groups still vehemently defend its use in dentistry.

Furthermore, perhaps the most disturbing aspect of mercury fillings is that research has already begun to explore how the mercury in amalgam and its vapor can be altered into methylmercury within the human body. Remember that bacteria in soil and water can convert mercury into methylmercury, a form of the element sometimes consumed by fish and shellfish.96 Remember also that pregnant women and children are advised not to eat certain types of seafood that might contain methylmercury.97 98 99 As shocking as it is, several studies have documented the ability of metallic mercury rooted in the human system (such as that from amalgam fillings) to be transformed into methylmercury in the mouth100, 101, 102, and by specific strains of yeast and bacteria that dwell in the gut,103 104, 105 thus revealing that the problem already addressed in maritime environments is one which even more intimately impacts human health.

Finally, it should be noted that amalgam studies of any sort should only be considered when the capricious nature of mercury is taken into account. The complex element, made even more complicated by its presence in vapor from fillings, influences each individual differently based on a wide-range of co-existing factors. Thoughtful research has explored how

  •  
    • gender,106 107
    • fetal exposure to mercury,108 109 110 111
    • plaque,112
    • various routes of exposure from mercury fillings,113 114 115
    • genetic predisposition,116 117 118 119 120 121
    • the number of amalgam fillings in the mouth,122 123 124 125 126 127 128 129 130
    • consumption of selenium,131
    • milk,132 133 134
    • or alcohol,135 136 137
    • and other circumstances138 139 140 141

can play a role in each person’s unique reaction to mercury.

It is imperative that consumers, medical professionals, scientists, health care providers, the press and officials of governmental organizations seriously contemplate whether this element of doubt is worth using at all, especially when it comes to pregnant women, fetuses, children and individuals with weakened immune systems. Studies exposing the wider-range of issues related to mercury fillings and the vapor they yield will inevitably continue to prove that the use of this known neurotoxin in dental materials is unhealthy, crippling and sometimes even deadly. In the meantime, informed citizens around the world will continue to wonder how long it will take to ban this cheap but toxic material from being placed into the mouths of an unsuspecting American public who has been separated from crucial knowledge about its debilitating effects by the smokescreen of its vapor.

 

REFERENCES

1 State of Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection. Fillings: The Choices You Have: Mercury Amalgam and Other Filling Materials. (Hartford, CT: Brochure, Revised January 2006), 3. http://www.ct.gov/dep/lib/dep/mercury/gen_info/fillings_brochure.pdf

2 Advisory Committee on Mercury Pollution. Dental Amalgam Fillings: Environmental and Health Facts for Dental Patients. (Waterbury, VT: online dental fact sheet, accessed October 27, 2010), 1. http://www.mercvt.org/PDF/DentalAmalgamFactSheet.pdf

3 World Health Organization. Mercury in Health Care. (Geneva, Switzerland: policy paper, August 2005), 1. http://www.who.int/water_sanitation_health/medicalwaste/mercurypolpaper.pdf

4 Health Canada. The Safety of Dental Amalgam. (Ottawa, Ontario: report, 1996), 4. http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/dhp-mps/alt_formats/hpfb-dgpsa/pdf/md-im/dent_amalgam-eng.pdf

5 Dental Amalgam Fillings: Environmental and Health Facts for Dental Patients, 1. http://www.mercvt.org/PDF/DentalAmalgamFactSheet.pdf

6 Fillings: The Choices You Have: Mercury Amalgam and Other Filling Materials, 3. http://www.ct.gov/dep/lib/dep/mercury/gen_info/fillings_brochure.pdf

7 Risher, J.F. for World Health Organization. Elemental Mercury and inorganic mercury compounds: human health aspects (Geneva, Switzerland: Concise International Chemical Assessment Document 50, 2003). http://www.inchem.org/documents/cicads/cicads/cicad50.htm

8 United States Environmental Protection Agency. Mercury: Basic Information. (Washington, D.C: website, accessed October 27, 2010), 2, http://www.epa.gov/mercury/about.htm

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10 Mercury: Human Exposure, 4. http://www.epa.gov/hg/exposure.htm

11 Goldfrank, L et al. Goldfrank’s Toxicologic Emergencies, as cited in Goldman, Lynn, Shannon, Michael, and Committee on Environmental Health for the American Academy of Pediatrics. “Technical Report: Mercury in the Environment: Implications for Pediatricians,” Pediatrics 108:1 (2001): 197. http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/cgi/reprint/108/1/197

12 Sanger, David E. “Japan and the mercury-poisoned sea: a reckoning that won’t go away.” The New York Times, January 16, 1991 (http://www.nytimes.com/1991/01/16/world/japan-and-the-mercury-poisoned-sea-a-reckoning-that-won-t-go-away.html)

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15 United States Food and Drug Administration. What You Need to Know about Mercury in Fish and Shellfish. (Washington, D.C: brochure, March 2004). http://www.fda.gov/Food/ResourcesForYou/Consumers/ucm110591.htm

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40 United States Environmental Protection Agency. Dental Amalgam Effluent Guide. (Washington, D.C.: guide, updated on September 27, 2007). http://water.epa.gov/scitech/wastetech/guide/dental/index.cfm

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64 Siblerud, RL. “A comparison of mental health of multiple sclerosis patients with silver/mercury dental fillings and those with fillings removed,” Psychol Rep., 70: 3pt 2 (Rocky Mountain Research Institute, Colorado, June 1992): 1136-51. Abstract available at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1496084

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106 Rothwell, Janet A; Boyd, Paul J. “Amalgam fillings and hearing loss,” International Journal of Audiology 47: 12 (December 1, 2008): 771. Abstract available at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19085401

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