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August 5th, 2010
10:41 AM ET

Do mercury fillings pose a health risk?

As a feature of CNNhealth.com, our team of expert doctors will answer readers' questions. Here's a question for Dr. Gupta.

From Rhonda in Illinois

"My husband's dental fillings are amalgam (mercury)...How toxic is the mercury in fillings?"

Answer

Great question, Rhonda. The amount of mercury in amalgam fillings has raised many safety questions over the years. But many studies have shown that cavities filled with amalgam have little evidence of harmful health effects.

Amalgam can release small amounts of mercury vapor over time. And patients can absorb small amounts of the vapors by inhaling or ingesting them. But exposure to mercury can be more harmful in other ways: for example, through certain foods like fish, as well as medications, toxic air, and working directly with mercury exposure.

About a year ago the FDA recommended that amalgam have warning labels that include:
* Information to warn patients with mercury allergies
* That dental professionals have adequate ventilation when handling dental amalgam
* And a statement discussing the scientific evidence on the benefits and risks of dental amalgam so patients and dentist can make better choices if it's used.

The use of amalgam has been declining. Cavity rates among school children and young adults are dropping. There's also been a trend of fluoride use, changes in eating habits, and many improvements in oral hygiene products and practices.

If you still have concerns, here are some symptoms to look for that signal elemental mercury poisoning: Memory loss, irritability, tremors, poor physical coordination, discoloration of the hands and feet, flushing, insomnia, kidney failure, and anorexia. But always consult with your doctor if you have any questions or concerns.


Filed under: Dental health • Expert Q&A

soundoff (25 Responses)
  1. serge

    It’s a sensitive issue. Methyl mercury is the type found in fish, and has been found harmful to the brain in large amounts. The EPA advises women to avoid eating mercury-rich fish during pregnancy for that reason.

    However, mercury in dental fillings is a different type of chemical compound — an amalgam or blend of copper, silver, and mercury. Dentists have used this blended metal for more than 150 years. But over the years, concerns about mercury fillings have been raised, writes Meryl Karol, PhD, an epidemiologist with the University of Pittsburgh School of Public Health.

    Karol chaired the expert panel whose research review was released today. Scientists from the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, the Center for Devices and Radiological Health of the FDA, the CDC, and the Public Health Service’s chief dental officer, were among those experts.

    Regards
    Serge
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    August 5, 2010 at 13:22 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Linda Brocato

      A poison, is a poison, is a poison...I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in 1981. 3 hospitalizations, 8 different medications including oral and intravenous chemotherapy for MS, experimental Plasmaphoresis, bedridden for 10 years, slurred speech and dying. I had my dental amalgam mercury "silver" fillings removed and guess what? All symptoms gradually disappeared, NO medication, NO relapses, NO symptoms, except this left me in a wheelchair! Improvement started to happen 2 weeks after all amalgam fillings were removed. Prior to mercury dental removal I had 1 to 3 relapses per year and haven't had 1 relapse since 1989.

      I have been in contact with people since 1996 regarding their symptoms of mercury toxicity. The diseases encompass a wide range of symptoms from autoimmunity to heart problems etc. Unfortunately, some symptoms like mine manifest later in life. According to Dr. Boyd Haley, former Professor and Chair of Chemistry at the University of Kentucky and renowned toxicologist, says there are NO SAFE LEVELS OF MERCURY.

      Amalgams contain 50% mercury, a poison and a neuro-toxin. A cross and skull bones with the word poison are on the label when the mercury comes into the dentists' office. Mercury vapors are released 24/7 every time a person chews, drinks hot liquids, brushs their teeth, etc. See "The Smoking Teeth" at http://www.iaomt.org. If a person contains the APOE4 gene-type they are less likely to excrete "mercury".

      Linda Brocato
      DAMS-IL

      August 5, 2010 at 14:56 | Report abuse |
    • cenk2000

      In year 2010 we actually have effective non toxic alternatives to mercury fillings. The U.S. government publication from the agency that follows the toxicology of the 100 most dangerous toxins states about Mercury that "there is no known safe level of mercury". That there is an increased mortality at even the lowest doses tested. Why whould anyone want to have mercury fillings....We are poisoned from the mercury vapor. The amalgum mercury fillings should be outlawed.
      I have also a known high level expusure to fire retardant called Poly brominated bi Phenyl, chlordane, a pesticide, and other heavy metals like cadmium and intermitant high level exposures to formaldehyde. Dr. Gupta did a great job I thought of covering serious toxins and they have seriously affected my health. I am in a major detox program to regain my health. Many people need this kind of medical help.

      August 8, 2010 at 00:27 | Report abuse |
  2. Jeff S

    Linda makes a great point regarding the gene type making people less likely to excrete mercury. With this and many other issues, people like to make points like, "well I have a whole bunch of mercury fillings, and I'm fine!" Everyone has different genetic makeup, and different environmental factors. The fact is, mercury is one of the most toxic substances we can encounter, and even if an amalgam filling is "less toxic" than mercury-laden fish, for example, there's no good reason to expose ourselves to it unnecessarily.

    My dentist doesn't use amalgam at all, my dental insurance only covers amalgam fillings. Lucky for me, I've only had 1 cavity in the last 20 years (which was just a couple years ago), but I gladly paid the $130 out of pocket, both to keep mercury out of my mouf and so that I didn't have a big, weird gob of dark stuff in my molar. I'm surprised amalgam even exists anymore.

    August 5, 2010 at 17:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. saintd

    when it comes to toxic substances of any kind there are no measurable safe limits. If it is there it is bad. Guidelines where set up as a compromise with business to provide work. there are some foods that will chelate mercury from your body but if it is implanted 6" from your brain it would be hard to get out. It arrives at your dentists office as a toxic substance. they have a problem with it as well.

    August 5, 2010 at 18:25 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. lin

    I have felt better since getting half of my amalgam fillings changed. I'm just not positive that it can be attributed totally to the filling changes since I made other positive health changes at approximately the same time. Concentration seems better. The cost is extensive so any future changes will be done at a slower rate. I also chose to change them one at a time to keep the cost affordable as possible and make sure that extensive dental work wasn't overwhelming to my system.

    August 5, 2010 at 23:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Old Techie

    It would be useful if people could know their science before making such definitive statements. One of the reasons that medical science requires CONTROLLED clinical trials is because it is human nature to note coincidences (but when I got an upset stomach was it really because of the food I ate or a stomach virus I could not see or something in the water?). To make things worse are statements that are just plain wrong. Mercury is NOT the most toxic material known (by a long shot) [and mercury toxicity depends on the form of the mercury – methyl mercury vs. mercury salt vs. mercury vapor etc.]. When scientists (like the NAS panel) put together expert reports on subjects like mercury amalgams, they bring extensive knowledge and experience into play. Unlike lin (above) too many commenters fail to acknowledge that other factors may be involved. His/her comment is very notable" "I made other positive health changes at the same time." Having a good diet, making sure one is not overweight, getting regular exercise - these things will pay off.

    August 6, 2010 at 12:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Lee Brimmer

    My dad had all his teeth and lots of mercury fillings. He died of complications of Alzheimer's Disease in his early 70's.
    My mother had false teeth and lived to be 93.

    August 6, 2010 at 14:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. JS

    Dentists do fillings simply because they can fill their coffers as well. I have had unnecessary fillings done over the years, none of which were explained well by my dentists. With that many dentists meddling with my teeth over the years, who knows what long term side effects they will have? No one, I guess!

    August 6, 2010 at 14:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Linda

    My daughter has Peach Care for insurance and they only cover the amalgam fillings unless they are front teeth. I voiced my concerns with her dentist and he told me that amalgam didn't have any mercury in it. I told him he didn't know what he was talking about! He wanted to argue with me about it. I learned about the risks on a documentary called "The Beautiful Truth" regarding the Gerson Therapy. I refused to have those put in any of my kids mouths as the risk is not one I am willing to bet on. They should be taken out of circulation and not be forced into the mouths of children by the government health care system.

    August 6, 2010 at 15:11 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. elitesack

    Yes they are toxic. In europe people are getting them removed and reporting outstanding stories of regaining their mental health and this is not being shown on any news media in the US.

    August 6, 2010 at 15:50 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. lin

    A lot of interesting comments are being made pro and con about amalgam fillings. There have been more internet articles about ways of keeping your teeth and gums healthier which will lessen the need for fillings and reduce some health problems. Proper diets as well as the recommended brushing and flossing will generally help prevent dental problems. It's not a guarantee, but worth the effort. If grinding your teeth is a problem, definitely try to solve that situation whether it's a day time problem or happens while sleeping. That is off the subject of the amalgam fillings, but it's part of dental care.

    August 6, 2010 at 16:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Paul

    You say that "many studies have shown that cavities filled with amalgam have little evidence of harmful health effects."

    Out of curiosity, how many can you cite? Actual studies, not just reviews. I can find a few, but clearly many scientists and medical professionals have doubts about the safety of amalgams and what the scientific evidence points to.

    Here's text from one abstract on PubMed, from J Environ Pathol Toxicol Oncol. :

    "Amalgam restorative material generally contains 50% mercury (Hg) ... It has been well documented that this mixture continually emits mercury vapor, which is dramatically increased by chewing, eating, brushing, and drinking hot liquids... The American Dental Association has said for the past 150 years that the mercury in amalgam is safe and does not leak; however, no clinical studies were ever done and the Food and Drug Administration approved amalgam under a grandfather clause. Subsequent studies have shown this claim of safety not to be true."

    August 7, 2010 at 14:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Dr. Ann

    There is a relationship between Autism and Aspartame. The Senate is determining what correlates with Autism. For the Senate Hearing on Autism going on this month, it may be beneficial to know that along with Mercury and other contaminations in the environment, Aspartame (NutraSweet and Equal) has also been linked to Autism.
    See the chart at http://www.rumormillnews.com/cgi-bin/forum.cgi?read=180197, which shows the timeline of Autism rates with Aspartame product approval and usage rates. Europe has banned the use of Aspartame for pregnant and nursing women as well as children. The countries where Aspartame has been banned or never accepted, their Autism rate is only a small fraction of the U.S. rate. Since Aspartame has been approved in 1981, and placed in soft drinks in 1986, the Autism rate has skyrocketed. The Aspartame notes page explains just a few studies on how Aspartame has been linked with brain disorders.
    Some Main Points:
    Dr. Olney warned of the damage that this product would do to the unborn and to children. He said that the FDA acknowledged “aspartame had been shown to induce brain damage in neonatal animals” but FDA dismissed the neurotoxicity as irrelevant on grounds that the approved uses of aspartame don’t include feeding it to newborn humans. Yet aspartame can be found in prescription and over-the-counter pediatric drugs and in pediatric vitamins. Nursing babies receive this poison from mothers who breastfeed. The recent plague of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), autism, and birth defects manifest the neurologic devastations of aspartame. Supporting this view, Dr. Louis Elsas, Emory Professor of Pediatrics and Genetics, testified in a congressional hearing that aspartame is a teratogen (causes birth defects) and a neurotoxin.
    Aspartame is a teratogen that triggers birth defects. It is a deadly neurotoxin (Dr. Louis Elsas testimony before congress, pediatric professor,genetics). Dr. Russell Blaylock, M.D. says aspartame triggers ADD and autism.

    August 9, 2010 at 09:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. charlie m

    I watch cnn every morning before leaving for work. I am always encouraged and informed by many of your reports. Have you ever reported on brain cancer research, that places focus on GBM IV? I had a GBM removed from my right frontal lobe, approx. 2.5 cm. It was determined to be maglinant. Therefore, I became a member of a growing and painfully small club of folk that hardly ever live past 17 months. I followed standard protocol of treatment with radiation and temodar for 42 days straight, and 33 radiation. Since I have taken only 1 month off of temodar and have been on a 5 day a month dosage.
    When I was first diagnosed I was told to "go see the grand canyon". Gather my "bucket list", "pack your bags", basically get ready to die.
    I have been and continue to be one of the very few long term survivors of this often terminal disease. What I am interested in is a report in the mainstream media about this significant condition. I am certain there are many who like me have done extensive internet research, and study on gbm's.
    What I am curious about is, why is there not a study on the survivors of this deadly disease? Perhaps they have certain genetic markers and other characteristics that might improve survivability.
    Thank you for your time and reply,
    By the way I am a 54 year old healtly male 20 month survivor.

    August 11, 2010 at 08:26 | Report abuse | Reply
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    August 16, 2010 at 05:29 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. RWS

    I had my amalgam fillings replaced with composite material as a desperate last resort. Prior to that point I had been a dual diagnosis type and predominately unemployed. A few weeks later I landed a job as a professor of physics at Harvard University. That was quite a recovery. Particularly since I dropped out of 3rd grade!

    August 19, 2010 at 21:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Baker

    Thank you Dr. Gupta for bringing this issue to light!!!

    I was too, unaware of the many toxins encountered by most of us every day. That changed when I was in a lab waiting for a blood test to determine if I suffer from LUPUS disease. While waiting to be called in, I picked a health magazine that featured Dr. Hulda Clark. This scientist has made it her life mission to help people rid themselves of toxins and pollutants. She specifically did not seek to gain any financial benefit or any other gain (She urges readers to feel free to copy her published work and give it to anyone interested. She also did not want to copyright or patent her findings and inventions). In fact, she has published books explaining how to make essential lifestyle changes and has outlined easy instructions to readers, so they can create low-cost devices, helping fight toxins and pollutants and enables one to diagnose his/her problem(s).
    I since learned that I did not suffer from LUPUS, although my auto-immune symptoms did resemble it very closely. My doctor was unable to diagnose my problem and I got tested for a few other diseases, all which came back negative.
    I eventually bought Dr Clark's book ($15 on Amazon) and started using her method, as well as changed a lot of my lifestyle habits. One of the biggest changes she emphasized is the MERCURY toxin in fillings. Although expensive and not covered by my insurance, I had all fillings changed (it cost me about $1000). I started doing the detoxification program and it has now been over a year since I first went to be tested for LUPUS and other autoimmune diseases.... Although I have not completed the program and still have more changes to implement, I can gladly report that I have NOT HAD ONE INSTANCE of the LUPUS-LIKE symptoms or any other autoimmune symptoms. Also, I used to suffer from PSORIASIS and toe-nail fungus (20+ yrs), but they all disappear and I feel much better.

    I hope this can help other people too (the most expensive change I made was replacing the fillings, but it was well worth the cost!!!)
    Again, thank you so much Dr. Gupta!!

    August 22, 2010 at 15:54 | Report abuse | Reply
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  18. toni

    Hello,Dr. I just saw this site and I had to write in...I was diagnosed w/m.s. then the doctors re-tracted that after I went into a major seizure and lost my memory ( I am still in recovery. The major seizure happened in 2003 and I have been in major battles with my health,but thank God I stay strong as I researched myself and watch programs with you and others and I read so much medical journals I should be a doctor(LOL) but, seriously I had reason to believe it was something with dental since I had a root canal than approx. a month later I began having seizures. Then I was diagnosed with multiple scelrosis yet the medication had me go into a major seizure after injection and I lost my memory and other problems neurologically.I had personal journals from day one in full detail..but,no doctor would check me for mercury, instead I was continually told its m.s.when I found a new nuerologist at my m.d. request I was allowed to make my own decision to see a toxicologist after my journal were read...Low and behold...I AM POISIONED
    I am so thankful to doctors like you who I watched over the years.. Who honour their proffesson and give PEOPLE the right information on health.....Now that I am being detoxed it's like I am new and back to me again...I am still going through treatments and each session I grow stronger, look and feel better ( I truely was looking bad.."I didn't realize it but everyoone else did..not just family and friends but everyone I have done business w/ for over 16yr and some on a daily-weekly basis.During my research I found Linda Brocato and talked to her..she sounded like me and my symptoms almost exactly..I keep her informed of my progress....no doctor ever told her to see a toxicologist...I wish they had done so !
    THANK YOU FOR HELPING ME

    September 22, 2010 at 22:55 | Report abuse | Reply
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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.