One of the most controversial topics in dentistry today is the use of mercury in dental materials. Metal fillings, known as amalgams, utilize the low melting point of mercury to create a metal substance that starts out moldable and solidifies to make a strong restoration. Knowing that mercury has harmful properties, why does the dental profession still utilize this material? We wanted to take a moment to explain how (and why) mercury is still used as a safe and predictable dental treatment.
For starters, our office currently does not place amalgam fillings. This is not due to mercury toxicity or metal content, but rather that tooth colored fillings can now offer similar structural properties as amalgams, but with much better esthetics. All things equal, most patients would prefer a natural looking restoration over a metallic alternative. Still, many dental practices still place amalgams. The metal fillings are occasionally preferred over tooth colored materials due to location, size and user choice. Our office has a number of materials and technologies (such as the sonicfil system) that allows us to place tooth colored restorations with great predictability in a number of scenarios.
An important point in understanding mercury toxicity is acknowledging the different ways that mercury exists in our environment. Elemental mercury can be found in older thermometers, blood pressure cuffs and certain types of lightbulbs. While it is a toxic substance, it does not “stay” in our system; after exposure the harmful vapors are processed and released. This is contrasted to organic mercury (methylmercury, organomercury, etc.). Organic mercury “builds up” in ecosystems and causes health concerns associated with eating large fish, sushi and other seafood. Our bodies have a hard time clearing this compound, which can eventually lead to conditions such as mercury poisoning.
The mercury found in amalgam fillings is unique, as it is “locked in" with other metals in an alloy. Extensive research has shown that properly maintained metal fillings leach little to no mercury into the body. In other words, while there may be mercury present in your fillings, it is largely shielded from causing any effects or systemic health issues.
The only real concerns with mercury in amalgam fillings are during placement and removal. These are the only occasions when the mercury is aerosolized or free to release vapor. However, dentists are very aware of this, and take many precautions to eliminate any potential harm. For example, our office uses two forms of isolation/suction when removing amalgam fillings, as to maximize the speed at which the vapors are evacuated.
Please do not heed the advice of television medical personalities who proclaim the many “evils” of amalgam. It is a strong, safe and effective dental filling material. Our office only removes dental amalgam due to patient preference or recurrent decay. We never recommend removing sound amalgam fillings due to mercury concerns. If you would like to know more about the mercury content in amalgam fillings, our office’s policies or why we place fillings, please give us a call. We want you to be confident and satisfied with all aspects of your dental treatment!