Debate Over Dental Fillings

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The debate over whether mercury in dental fillings can leach out and cause a wide range of health problems — from multiple sclerosis and cancer to Alzheimer's disease — refuses to die down.

The mercury in dental fillings is an amalgam, or blend, of copper, silver, and mercury that has been used for more than 150 years. Silver dental fillings contain very small amounts of inorganic mercury, which is not easily absorbed by the human body, according to the American Dental Association (ADA) and other public health groups.

The ADA's position that dental amalgam is a safe and effective material to fill cavities is supported by the U.S. Public Health Service, the European Commission and the World Health Organization, and many studies. In late 2004, a group called the Life Sciences Research Office Inc. reviewed seven years worth of scientific studies and concluded that there is insufficient evidence "of a link between dental mercury and health problems, except in rare instances of allergic reactions."

However, Austria, Canada, Denmark, Germany, and Sweden have banned or discouraged mercury fillings, especially in children and pregnant women.

How Easily Is Mercury Absorbed?

"The mercury in fish is methyl mercury and is much more easily absorbed by the gastrointestinal tract, whereas elemental mercury from an amalgam is almost not absorbed," says ADA spokesman J. Rodway Mackert, DDS, a professor in the School of Dentistry at the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta. And if it's not absorbed, it can't cause any problems, he says.