Body & Soul with Gail Harris
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Filling You In

Since the 1820's, dentists have been using a combination of mercury, silver, tin and zinc to create the "silver" or amalgam fillings that most of us have in our mouths. But just how safe are they? The American Dental Association (ADA) states that amalgam fillings have been safely used for 150 years. However, a growing number of researchers and dentists believe that amalgam fillings may pose an unrecognized health risk.

Mercury, which comprises about 50% of the amalgam filling, is one of the most toxic elements on the planet. The harmful effects of mercury are almost too numerous to count. Many of us know about the mercury warnings issued periodically for lake fish, and about the danger posed by a broken mercury thermometer -- but did you also know that when amalgam fillings are removed, they go straight to the toxic waste dump?

A study conducted in 1993 by Tufts University School of Medicine suggests that amalgam fillings can create bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics. Other studies have linked amalgam fillings to headaches and depression, gastrointestinal distress, and even chronic fatigue and multiple sclerosis. However, much of this information remains in dispute. It's also important to keep in mind that diseases are complex, and many factors are often involved.

The American Dental Association has issued numerous statements asserting that when mercury is mixed with other components in the filling, stable compounds are formed, and only trace amounts of mercury remain. According to their research, there is no convincing evidence that trace amounts of mercury have any effect on humans. In addition, the existing alternatives to amalgams -- porcelain, natural resins, and other composite materials -- are considerably more expensive and tend to be less durable. So strongly does the ADA stands by its position, that if a dentist recommends removal of amalgam fillings, they may be found guilty of a breach of ethics, and can be disciplined. The Food and Drug Administration, the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, and the Consumers Union (publishers of Consumer Reports) are three of many national organizations that support the ADA's position.

Nonetheless, the ADA is working to develop a mercury-free tooth filling that may someday provide an affordable and long-lasting alternative. Meanwhile, Sweden, Denmark and Austria have all banned amalgam fillings, and Germany has issued advisories against the use of amalgams in pregnant women and people with kidney problems.

So, are your fillings safe? As with so many other health care questions, the answer could be 'yes and no'. It's best to do your own research and decide for yourself. For more information, and links to websites, please go to the Tell Me More section and check out the reading list.

And by the way, if you do break a mercury thermometer, never use a vacuum cleaner! Remove children and pets from the area. Clean up the beaded mercury by carefully rolling it onto a sheet of paper, or using an eyedropper. Pack it up in an airtight container, along with the eyedropper, and anything else it has touched, and dispose of it according to the guidelines provided by your health department. Don't just throw it in the trash. Ventilate the room with fans, and try to close off the rest of the house.

Program Description
Biological Medicine
Thomas Rau, MD
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Tell Me More
Help YourSelf

Body & Soul is currently airing Monday-Friday at 7:00pm and 8:30pm on PBS YOU.

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