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Are Millions of Americans Being Poisoned by Their Own Dental Fillings?

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Are Millions of Americans Being Poisoned by Their Own Dental
Fillings?

by Jill Richardson

AlterNet

A controversial theory linking amalgam fillings and mercury
poisoning is starting to gain scientific acceptance.

Kris Homme, a retired engineer, did not know what was happening
to her. At age 33, she was diagnosed with macular degeneration
— a disease that
usually does not appear until old age
. Not one to give up,
she somehow managed to complete two graduate degrees with
impaired vision. Then, in her 40s, she developed chronic
fatigue and multiple chemical sensitivities.

“I was pretty much housebound for a couple years,” she recalls.
“I just didn’t have the strength to leave the house by myself.
I was able to keep my house fragrance-free but I had trouble
being in a crowd, like on a bus or in an audience where you’re
sitting next to people because so many people wear fragrances.
Or walking on the streets, the car exhaust would be
overpowering.”

Photo Credit: U.S. Navy photo
by Photographer’s Mate Airman Jessica Davis;
Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

A friend suggested her problem might be mercury exposure from
her dental fillings, but she dismissed the idea. After all, her
neurologist had already tested her blood for mercury and did
not find anything to worry about.

Homme had a mouth full of amalgam fillings, each of which is 50
percent mercury. The mercury in them was long thought to be
inert, but scientists later discovered that some of the mercury
is released as vapor and absorbed into the body. Still, the
Food and Drug Administration and the American Dental
Association maintained they were perfectly safe.

As an engineer, Homme cannot be easily fooled. Even when
telling her own story, she repeatedly questions why anyone
would want to hear one story when it cannot constitute proof of
anything. Knowledge and facts come from carefully controlled,
randomized, statistically significant scientific studies, not
anecdotes and stories.


The theory that amalgam fillings caused mercury poisoning “all
sounded so flaky,” she remembers. “The anti-mercury movement
has a lot of unfortunate bedfellows so I dismissed the
argument.”

As an engineer, Homme cannot be easily fooled. Even when
telling her own story, she repeatedly questions why anyone
would want to hear one story when it cannot constitute proof of
anything. Knowledge and facts come from carefully controlled,
randomized, statistically significant scientific studies, not
anecdotes and stories.

The theory that amalgam fillings caused mercury poisoning “all
sounded so flaky,” she remembers. “The anti-mercury movement
has a lot of unfortunate bedfellows so I dismissed the
argument.”

What’s more, she had a degree in Environmental Health Sciences
from UC Berkeley. “I just thought that if that was an issue it
would have been covered in my prestigious degree program.”

Finally, her friend gave her a book to read, Amalgam Illness,
Diagnosis, and Treatment by Andrew Hall Cutler. “I stayed up
late, reading and crying. All my symptoms fit and all the
theory fit, the theory about how it’s not going to show up in a
blood test because you’re retaining it, you’re not excreting
it. My whole world turned upside down when I realized my
doctors and dentists were so wrong and my degree program was so
inadequate and it was like, if I can’t believe any of that,
what is true? Who can I believe?”

Today Homme is one of several plaintiffs in a lawsuit against
the FDA, demanding it respond to several petitions that ask it
to ban — or at least seriously restrict — the use of amalgam
fillings. Other plaintiffs include the International Academy of
Oral Medicine and Toxicology, Moms Against Mercury, and the
Cooperative Food Empowerment Directive (CoFED), as well as
several individuals. She’s also published a peer-reviewed paper
summarizing new studies demonstrating the harm of amalgam
fillings.

The FDA’s strongest evidence of the safety of amalgam fillings
are two studies published in 2006 called the “Children’s
Amalgam Trials.” One was conducted in New England, the
other in
Portugal
. In them, hundreds of healthy children with low
levels of mercury and lead, plenty of unfilled cavities and no
previous amalgam fillings were divided into two groups. One
group received amalgam fillings, and the other received
composite fillings. The children were then monitored over a
period of years for changes in mercury levels, IQ, memory and
several other neurological tests. They also tracked major
health problems in the children over the course of the study.

Both studies found higher levels of mercury in the urine of
children who received amalgam fillings, but, on average, they
found no significant differences in neurological development
and function between the two groups. The New England study also
tested kidney function and found no significant differences
between the two groups.

But reanalysis of the data from these studies show that perhaps
the amalgam fillings were not so benign.

As Homme points out, humans differ both in their exposure to
mercury and their susceptibility to it. When a person who is
highly susceptible to mercury is exposed to enough of it, he or
she gets sick — even if the same dose would not cause problems
for someone who is less susceptible.

Scientists have already identified several genes that cause
increased susceptibility to mercury. One of them is called
CPOX4. A
2012 study
looked at a subset of 330 children from the
Children’s Amalgam Trial conducted in Portugal and found that
about 28 percent of them had the susceptible variant of the
CPOX4 gene.

Rather than simply averaging the results of the amalgam group
and the composite group, the researchers looked at the
correlations between urinary mercury levels and neurological
test results. Among boys (but not girls) who had the CPOX4 gene
variant, the researchers found several significant
neurobehavioral deficits associated with increased mercury
exposure.

Three other studies also re-examined the data from the Portugal
study.
One
found evidence that amalgam fillings are a “significant
chronic contributor to Hg [mercury] body-burden.” A
second
found that children with the CPOX4 gene variant also
had biomarkers of mercury-related kidney damage. The
third
found neurobehavioral deficits in children who had
two other gene variants that made them more susceptible to
mercury.

In other words, amalgam fillings impact on your health depends
on your genes, your exposure (how many fillings you have and
how long you’ve had them) and maybe your sex. But if you’re
among the susceptible population and your exposure is high
enough, it appears that you might suffer health consequences as
a result.

These latest studies were all published between 2011 and 2013,
but critics of amalgam fillings sounded the alarm long before
then.

The story of U.S. regulation of amalgam fillings begins in
1976, when Congress passed the
Medical Device Amendments
to the Federal Food, Drug, and
Cosmetic Safety Act. The amendments required the government to
place all medical devices into
one of three classifications
based on risk. The riskiest
items would be put into Class III, which means they would
require pre-market approval by the government to verify their
safety and effectiveness before they could be sold.

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Years went by, and the FDA did nothing. In 2006, it released a
draft white paper on amalgam filling safety and held
a two-day meeting
with a panel of experts to discuss it.
The experts voted down the white paper by a margin of nearly
two to one.

The next year,
Moms Against Mercury
and other plaintiffs filed a lawsuit
against the FDA commissioner, asking the FDA (which still had
not classified amalgam fillings) to remove the fillings from
the market. The case was settled a year later, with the FDA
promising to classify amalgam fillings by July 28, 2009.

A few days before the deadline, Moms Against Mercury and others
submitted a Citizens Petition, again asking the FDA to ban
amalgam fillings, or — if it was unable to do that — classify
them as Class III and “seek strict proof of safety and
effectiveness” before allowing them to be sold. At the very
least, the group asked the FDA to place restrictions on the use
of amalgam fillings in the must susceptible populations, such
as pregnant women and children. Additionally, they called on
the FDA to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement or an
Environmental Assessment for amalgam fillings.

Days later, the FDA issued a final rule, classifying dental
amalgam fillings as Class II. Class II medical devices are
subject to what the FDA calls “special controls,” which might
include testing or warning labels, but they do not require any
FDA approval before they are allowed on the market.

The petitioners almost immediately submitted a second petition,
this one asking the FDA to reconsider its classification. At
the time, scientists already knew the significance of the CPOX4
gene variation. The petitioners also disputed the FDA’s
estimation of how much mercury one was exposed to from amalgam
fillings, particularly because the FDA ignored children under
six and assumed that nobody got more than 10 amalgam fillings.
And they felt that some of the FDA’s data was out of date.

One important part of the debate is the idea of a “reference
concentration
,” the amount of mercury one can be exposed to
without “appreciable risk of deleterious effects during a
lifetime,” even for sensitive individuals.

In 1995, the EPA set its
reference concentration for elemental mercury
(the type of
mercury in amalgam fillings) at 0.3 micrograms per cubic meter.
(Jim Love, the lawyer who filed the petitions on behalf of Moms
Against Mercury and others, calls their number “outdated.”)
California’s EPA set its
reference concentration
10 times lower, at 0.03 micrograms
per cubic meter.

Using 2001 to 2004 population statistics, a 2011 study
estimated that, using the U.S. EPA’s reference concentration,
67.2 million were getting too much mercury from their fillings.
The number of Americans absorbing an unsafe level of mercury
from their fillings jumps to 122.3 million if one uses
California’s lower reference concentration instead.

In other words, how much mercury are Americans getting from
their fillings, and how much mercury equals too much? According
to the FDA, Americans are not getting too much mercury from
their fillings, and according to the petitioners — and the 2011
study — they are. Love, the petitioners’ lawyer, feels, “It’s
beyond debate based on the weight of the evidence that we’re
getting too much mercury.”

After several years without a response from the FDA, the group
filed an addendum to their petition with updated science in
2013. Love is passionate about the cause.

“If we do clinical studies, are we going to find people with
neurobehavioral harm?” he asks. “Are we going to find people
with impaired kidney function? The answer is yes, and those
studies have come out also. So when you talk to a dentist and
he says there isn’t any evidence, ask him if he’s read our 2013
petition. I wouldn’t have filed the petition if I didn’t think
the evidence was there.”

Now, in 2013, the FDA has yet to respond to the petitions. On
behalf of his clients, Love has filed a lawsuit against the
FDA.

“It’s a very simple lawsuit,” he says. “It’s under the
Administrative Procedure Act. FDA is duly obligated to respond
to our petition. They haven’t done that. They are allowed 180
days by statute and they can ask for and receive more time.”

The 180-day mark passed long ago, in 2010. The plaintiffs
cannot force the FDA to ban amalgam fillings, but they can push
the FDA, through the courts, to respond to their petitions. And
that’s what they are trying to do.

“We don’t think there is an intellectually honest response that
can continue to justify the ongoing use of mercury fillings,”
continues Love. “Our contention is that the court should and
almost certainly will compel the FDA to file a response to our
citizens’ petitions.”

He adds, “In our complaint, we spell out the fact that the
largest purchaser of amalgam fillings is the US government and
they supply them to the indigent, those on welfare, the US
military, those on Indian reservations, and as far as we can
tell from where we sit, other alternatives are not available …
One of our plaintiffs in fact is in prison. He would like his
amalgam fillings removed.” But since the government says the
fillings are safe, the prisoner is stuck with them.

Initially, Love thought that amalgam fillings were going the
way of cassette tapes and VCRs. “Lots of people get composite
fillings [instead of amalgam] because they are white and they
are more attractive.” But, it turns out that even today, the
majority of new fillings are still amalgam.

As the insurance company
Delta Dental
notes, tooth-colored composite fillings are
more expensive than amalgam fillings and sometimes insurance
companies do not cover them, or only cover them in teeth
visible in a patient’s smile. The last time I had dental
insurance, my insurance would have covered 90 percent of the
cost of amalgam fillings but about half the cost of composite
fillings. I found that out only after the dentist had placed
several composite fillings in my mouth and the receptionist
handed me a large bill. If I were informed of the cost
difference in advance, would I have opted for mercury?

If you are worried about amalgam fillings in your mouth, you
can have them removed. Kris Homme, who had hers removed in
2008, cautions that you should seek out a safe removal
specialist because “a normal dentist might not use proper
precautions.”

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