City Council to debate safety of mercury in dental fillings

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At Tuesday’s Berkeley City Council meeting, council members and city organizations will introduce five proposals regarding a particular area of concern: the use of dental amalgam, which contains mercury, in fillings.

The proposals, which seek to curb possible negative health effects of dental amalgam containing mercury, will be presented by the Community Health Commission, the Community Environmental Advisory Commission, the city manager’s office and City Council members. All recommend further educating the public on the possible risks of the dental fillings, and some encourage limiting or altogether avoiding the use of amalgam.

Councilmember Jesse Arreguin said he hopes to forgo the tedious processes an “unprecedented” number of proposals on the same issue would require. Instead, he said, he would prefer to conduct a workshop to fully evaluate which proposals would most benefit the city.

Although amalgam has been used in dentistry for more than 150 years, a long-standing debate has existed as to whether mercury in fillings poses health risks.

Many European countries have banned amalgam or advise against its use. Multiple U.S. cities discourage using dental amalgam as well.

Arreguin said he hopes to give the City Council enough time to make an informed decision about  amalgam in the face of influence from the California Dental Association, a Sacramento-based organization that represents dentists in California.

“(The California Dental Association) is lobbying council members,” Arreguin said. “Sacramento politics coming into Berkeley is alarming, and I think we need to take the time to understand the facts and not come up with a watered-down proposal.”

The California Dental Association has long advocated amalgam as a “safe, affordable and durable material for dental patients.”

Despite the potential legislative action, Michael Bates, a campus adjunct professor of epidemiology, said the health effects of dental amalgam are not well studied.

He concurs with the many studies that do not show a clear connection between amalgam and negative health effects.

Research conducted in 2012 by professor emeritus James S. Woods of the department of environmental and occupational health sciences at the University of Washington, however, found mercury was associated with adverse neurological effects in certain children.

“Studies don’t often look at more sensitive types like children,” said Laurel Plummer, a member of the Community Environmental Advisory Commission.

Ariane Terlet, a UC Berkeley graduate and a member of the California Dental Association, noted that an alternative to amalgam is available: a composite resin filling, or a “white filling,” that doesn’t contain mercury. But the white filling is more costly and does not last as long as amalgam, and therefore, she said, prohibiting amalgam would limit patients’ options.

“Ninety-nine percent of the people I see that complain about amalgam aren’t complaining that it is harmful but that it doesn’t look aesthetically pleasing,” she said.

Contact Nico Correia at [email protected]

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  • ID675K

    Mercury is a poison, and was recognized as a poison by the Chinese many centuries ago. It should be banned in tooth fillings.