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Mercury is very harmful and it can make people sick. No one disputes this. In fact, mercury is particularly difficult to eliminate from our environment because it can be found in water, in the land, and in the air. People can become poisoned from mercury exposure as a result of eating fish or living near an incinerator.

Since mercury is known to be harmful, medical professionals would not intentionally expose us to mercury, right? Actually, the question is not that easy to answer. Many fillings placed in people's mouths by dentists, probably including your dentist, consist of a mercury-containing amalgam. Which means that even though everyone knows that mercury can hurt people, we are still allowing dentists to fill our cavities with it.

This kind of amalgam is preferred because it is not that costly and it is very durable. The filling is called an "amalgam" because it consists of mercury, mixed with other metals. While it appears that mercury containing amalgam may be harmless for most people, and while studies have consistently indicated that this is a safe practice, many still wonder. And, I think there is legitimate reason to, at least, wonder.

Some experts have opined that when people with amalgam in their mouths chew, small amounts of the mercury are released into their body. However, dental professionals and other experts generally assert that the amount of released mercury is much smaller than the amount that enters the body through eating, drinking and breathing. So, they argue -- and many experts seem to agree on this -- really is no problem.

According to a U.S. Public Health Service report issued in 1993, amalgam is generally safe except for patients allergic to mercury. And, studies have indicated that the number of people who appear to be allergic is rather small. Other prominent organizations have also concluded that dental amalgam is safe and effective. So again, the informed consensus is that the practice is safe.

There have also been suggested links between the use of amalgam and Alzheimer's Disease. However, in response a 1999 article in the Journal of the American Dental Association reported no significant association of Alzheimer's Disease with dental amalgam restorations. Again, everything seems to be fine.

Nonetheless, I am personally a little concerned about this practice and a little skeptical. What would the implications be of now finding that mercury containing amalgam is harmful? Would dentists, their insurance carriers, and amalgam manufacturers all of the sudden be exposed to a rash of lawsuits. I am confident that the answer is "yes." So I think that there is an incentive by many to conclude that the practice is fine.

Mercury is harmful and when people chew it seems logical to me that some of the mercury enters the "chew-eee's" body either because particles flake off or because the material vaporizes. That just seems to make sense to me. No science here, just what I perceive to be logic.

While the amount absorbed or otherwise ingested has to be very small, do we understand the cumulative impact of this small amount being released day after day? And add to that the additional mercury exposure from every day living: such as fish ingestion, inhalation, and for some people (including dentists), workplace exposure. Do we understand what happens when all of these separate small exposures are added together?

Even though the experts tell us that the practice is safe, you should know that there may be composite materials that your dentist can use instead of these amalgams. For example, the all-white fillings apparently have no mercury. While they cost more and may not be as durable, some readers may be happy with these trade offs.

I believe that dental professionals should make these options known to their patients, and the patients should be given an opportunity to make an informed decision. I am sure that this is already the practice in many dental offices.

We have all seen it happen before. Experts insist a given practice is perfectly fine one day, only to suggest that it might be life threatening the next. You need to listen to the experts. But, at the end of the day, you alone are responsible for the choices that you make.

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