Dental News

Dental Panel Urges Warnings on Mercury

By AMY PYLE, Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO ( Saturday, December 4, 1999 )The California Board of Dental Examiners advised dentists Friday to warn patients about exposure to mercury from metal fillings.

The unanimous vote followed a full-court lobbying effort by foes of mercury fillings and by consumer advocates, who described it as a seminal event.

“It’s time to use the M-word,” said attorney Charles Brown, who represents Consumers for Dental Choice. “It’s time to call it mercury.”

Scientific studies tend to conclude that mercury in fillings is dangerous only to a very few allergic patients, although a small number of studies have been more alarming. Several countries have recommended against using mercury in fillings for pregnant women and children.

As the durability of alternative filling substances has improved, some dentists have opted to move away from mercury.

The dental board found itself in the midst of the mercury debate after its president, Robert Christoffersen, stated during a license revocation hearing earlier this year that “[mercury] amalgam-free dentistry does not fit the current practice of dentistry.”

On Friday, Christoffersen sought to clarify those remarks, saying he was referring only to that case, involving a dentist who maintains that removing mercury fillings can cure many serious diseases. That constitutes a medical diagnosis, he said, which goes beyond a dental license.

Mercury-free dentistry is fine, Christoffersen said, “as long as they offer their patients the option of [mercury] amalgam.” He said that could occur through a referral if the dentist chooses not to use mercury.

A public relations consultant working for Consumers for Dental Choice protested that even Christoffersen’s clarification constitutes a double standard.

“We’re not asking every dentist to offer amalgam-free options,” said Don Fields. “Why should we ask every dentist to offer amalgam?”

Friday’s board action requires that a new fact sheet, listing mercury as a hazardous substance and disclosing that metal fillings are about half mercury, be completed by December 2000. Dentists will also be advised to include an inquiry about mercury sensitivity in the questionnaire all patients fill out.

The board does not have the legal authority to order dentists to comply, but consumer advocates said the action has the weight of law because dentists who do not take heed will open themselves up to liability.

In the interim, the dental board will include an article about the new advice in its quarterly newsletter, distributed to all licensed dentists. The article will also reiterate that the board does not officially favor any filling material, a statement the mercury-free lobby had requested to reassure dentists who choose to use other substances.

But the board also voted to include in both publications the array of toxic chemicals used in alternative fillings–made of porcelain, ceramics and resin–despite objections from the mercury-free advocates that none are as dangerous as mercury.

Board member Peter Hartmann, a Montecito dentist, read a list of hazardous materials used in practicing dentistry, ranging from the latex in dentist’s gloves to the triethylene in resin fillings.

“There are quite a few,” Hartmann said. “It would be good to look around our offices and see what’s there.”