Dentists are familiar with amalgam, a mixture of metals used as a dental filling material to fill the cavities left by tooth decay issues. By now, dentists also should be familiar with why it is such an environmental concern – the mercury it contains.
Dental amalgam waste, and the mercury found within, have been a hot topic throughout the industry for the last couple years because of a rule from the Environmental Protection Agency that actually went into effect earlier this summer.
That rule requires most dentists and similar professionals in dentistry to have amalgam separators installed in their offices to keep amalgam waste from entering stormwater and sewer systems. These separators help keep mercury from reaching the environment and causing health concerns to both people, animals and the environment as a whole.
In fact, liquid or elemental mercury is only one ingredient in the mixture. There is also silver, tin and copper. However, almost 50% of amalgam’s weight is from elemental mercury. It’s the mercury that helps the other ingredients react and bind together to form a durable and safe material.
While the mercury found in a person’s cavity fillings in their mouth is not a risk to that individual person, dental offices must still handle amalgam with care because enough amalgam waste that is discarded improperly could result in higher levels of mercury being released into the environment.
For those unfamiliar with mercury, it’s critical to note that this element can be highly toxic to people and animals. This is why the EPA considers the management and disposal of mercury a matter of such importance.
Before we get into how mismanagement of amalgam leads to environmental issues, we should note that mercury already occurs as a natural element found in the earth’s crust. This mercury, found already in the earth, can be released and cause health and environmental problems through many natural processes, including volcanic activity and rocks weathering, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
But human activity, the WHO notes, is the primary reason mercury is released. Many of these human causes are linked to heavily industrial activity, but to a lesser extent, other professions that handle mercury and materials with mercury present – such as dentists – can also be responsible for mercury releases. This is why all in dentistry must be aware of the risks this toxic element poses.
No matter how mercury enters the environment, it usually poses the most risks to humans through the consumption of fish and shellfish that have been contaminated by methylmercury. Methylmercury is the result of mercury that has been transformed by bacteria.
Workers in certain career fields can be exposed, but the broader public concern remains with water sources.
It’s these water sources that are at risk from the mercury in dental amalgam that is released from dentist offices and similar practices. When amalgam waste from a dental office enters a drain, it will enter those water sources through stormwater or sewer systems unless there is an amalgam separator of some type installed in the facility or chairside.
Without that protection, which again is now required by the EPA, the mercury cannot be handled properly and disposed of in the correct manner. That is where problems could occur and the harmful effects of mercury can pop up.
That mercury, if released in high enough quantities, can cause serious problems for the environment. Those problems can lead to health issues for both people and wildlife.
Without best practices for handling dental amalgam waste, a dental office or facility could be putting both people and animals at risk.
Health concerns for people
Mercury’s harmful effects on people are well-documented. Exactly how badly it affects a person’s health depends on a number of different factors, including what form of mercury they were exposed to, how much mercury they were exposed to, how long the individual was exposed, the person’s age, how exactly they were exposed (ingested, contact, breathing) and their previous health.
The effects of mercury on people also depend on what type of mercury an individual has been exposed to.
With elemental mercury, symptoms of exposure can be lung damage, neurological difficulties, memory problems, rashes on the skin and kidney problems.
Inorganic mercury, which is normally accidentally ingested or comes in contact with skin, can cause digestive issues, neurological and memory problems, skin rashes and kidney problems.
Finally, organic mercury can damage the nervous system. It’s notably harmful to infants whose mothers were poisoned by methylmercury, causing developmental problems and cerebral palsy.
Risks posed to animals and wildlife
As with people, mercury can cause neurological and reproductive problems in animals.
One study in New York showed loons with high levels of mercury had fewer chicks, according to the National Wildlife Foundation. Other birds have also shown issues with mercury poisoning, especially those that feed on fish and insects that have been exposed.
Dentists can do their part in protecting human and wildlife health from the harmful effects of mercury poisoning by complying with the EPA’s rule on amalgam separators.
Not only should dental facility owners and managers ensure that their practices and facilities are compliant, but they should also research recycling and waste management service providers who can help them stay in compliance with all EPA regulations. This allows dentists and others working in the practices to focus on patient care and trust that all waste management issues are being taken care of according to best practices.
That’s where DRNA comes in. DRNA is trusted by dental associations across that represent more than 73,000 dentists. We are an industry leader in dental waste management and recycling, including amalgam waste, x-ray chemistry, lead, biohazardous waste and pharmaceutical waste.