Most people know dental amalgam fillings as silver fillings because of the silver color of the material used to fill cavities. It's a very common type of filling because it's durable and effective.
Dental amalgam contains small amounts mercury, though. This is why amalgam waste, in bulk, becomes a concern.
If your dental office doesn't properly handle its amalgam waste, the mercury found in the material could put the environment - and people - at risk.
To understand why dental amalgam can become an environmental concern, you must know what exactly the material is composed of. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) notes that dental amalgam fillings are made of nearly equal parts liquid mercury and a powder that contains silver, tin, copper, zinc and other metals.
It's important to note that both the EPA and the American Dental Association (ADA) state that dental amalgam is perfectly safe for filling cavities. In fact, the ADA states that the amount of mercury found in the fillings isn't enough to pose health risks to people who have cavities filled with dental amalgam.
The amount of mercury found in dental amalgam fillings is not enough to create health risks. However, a large amount of the waste becomes an environmental concern.
When dental amalgam waste is mishandled by dental officers, the waste can find its way into the environment, potentially putting people at risk of exposure. The waste typically enters wastewater systems through office spittoons.
Once the amalgam waste reaches the sewers, it normally enters a municipal sewage treatment plant. These facilities have a 90 percent efficiency rate of removing amalgam from the water, according to the EPA.
When the amalgam is not removed, though, it becomes part of the treatment facilities' sewage waste. At that point, the amalgam found in the waste can find its way into the environment.
Once amalgam enters the environment it's the mercury component that causes the environmental concern.
Dental amalgam waste can find its way into ground water or the air when a sewage treatment facilities' waste is sent to a landfill. The mercury from the amalgam waste then may end up being released into the groundwater or air. Mercury can also enter the air when the waste is incinerated, too.
Airborne mercury is a concern because it can spread over a wider area. Once mercury enters the air, it can reach land, bodies of water and vegetation through precipitation.
Sometimes, sewage sludge is used as fertilizer on agricultural land. The EPA states that if there's mercury in the sludge and it's used as fertilizer, then some of the mercury may evaporate into the atmosphere.
In addition, some dentists could incorrectly place their amalgam waste in medical waste bags. If the medical waste is later incinerated, then it could be emitted into the air.
Although mercury is a natural element that can be found in many places, exposure to mercury is a health concern because of the serious problems it can cause, especially to unborn and young children.
The World Health Organization (WHO) states mercury exposure may have harmful effects on nervous, digestive and immune systems. It also may harm lungs, kidneys, skin and eyes. The WHO lists mercury as one of its top ten chemicals or groups of chemicals that are of "major public health concern."
There are two groups who are at more risk than others when it comes to health concerns due to mercury exposure: people who are regularly exposed and unborn children.
When a pregnant woman is exposed to mercury, the effects can be very detrimental to the neurological development of the unborn child, according to the WHO.
The WHO also states that, in addition to the harmful effects listed above, people who repeatedly and regularly are exposed to high levels of mercury can experience neurological and behavioural issues, as well as kidney effects.
Your dental office can do its part in limiting mercury in amalgam waste affecting the environment by taking the right steps to stop it from ever getting into your office's wastewater.
One of the first steps is having an amalgam separator installed in your office. The EPA states that amalgam separators "are a practical, affordable and readily available technology for capturing mercury and other metals before they are discharged into sewers that drain into water systems."
And DRNA's amalgam separators are top-of-the-line units used by early adopters and trusted by both public and private sector customers.
DRNA is proud to be the only company in the world to have been accepted as a participant in the US Environmental Protection Agency's Environment Testing Verification program (PDF).
By 2020, all dental offices must be in compliance with the EPA's rule on dental amalgam waste. The rule also affects dental schools and clinics.
The rule sets specific regulations, including:
The EPA considers removing dental amalgam (PDF) and recycling it a "common sense solution" to making sure the mercury in the material isn't released into the air or onto land and water.
When it comes to waste management, there are specific rules and regulations that your dental office must follow. DRNA, the North American leader in dental waste management and recycling, is here to guide you through the process of adhering to these specific requirements.
DRNA is prepared to assist you in managing other forms of waste, too, including x-ray chemistry, lead, biohazardous waste and pharmaceutical waste.
Contact DRNA today to discuss how we can help make proper waste management a simple and effective process.