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Down the drain: Why dental offices must monitor wastewater

Down the drain: Why dental offices must monitor wastewater

While many dental offices and other facilities practicing dentistry are rightfully concerned with waste management best practices, they must also be aware of what goes down the drains in their buildings and enters community wastewater systems.

This is because wastewater is one of the primary ways mercury from dental amalgam can escape a practice and cause issues for the environment. As such, dentists and all professionals working in their offices and clinics must do what they can to prevent amalgam, and the mercury it contains, from being introduced into wastewater.

In this blog post, we will take a look at why mercury in the environment is a problem and steps that can be taken to mitigate the issue, including having proper amalgam separators installed wherever operations that involve dental amalgam are performed.

Why dentists must prevent mercury from entering wastewater

Mercury is one of the primary ingredients that makes up dental amalgam, which is used to make silver fillings. Though these silver fillings are known to be completely safe for humans when used for cavity fillings and are both durable and cost effective, should discarded amalgam be mishandled, the mercury it contains could pose a threat to the environment.

This is why there is such a concentrated effort to follow amalgam waste management best practices. If it enters wastewater, then it could potentially harm people.

Mercury’s harmful effects on humans are well-documented, too. Exposure to the element can cause very serious health effects, especially for unborn babies and young children. For these vulnerable populations, mercury exposure can negatively affect development.

For everyone, though, mercury can be toxic and can do serious harm to nervous, digestive and immune systems, lungs, kidneys, skin and eyes.

How mercury reaches people

The disposal of dental amalgam is highly regulated because of the mercury that is found within it. High amounts of mercury can be harmful to humans and wildlife.

One of the ways humans can be exposed to harmful amounts of mercury is through the consumption of fish and shellfish that have been exposed to high amounts of the element themselves. These creatures encounter the mercury through the water they live in. In many cases, that mercury first entered the water through a wastewater system.

Dentists must monitor effluent discharge

In industry terms, the water that enters wastewater systems through dental facilities is known as effluent. Effluent is wastewater that comes from sources other than kitchens or toilets.

It typically flows directly from an industrial or commercial property – a dentist office, for example – to the wastewater treatment plant and can’t enter a water body until it has been cleaned and treated.

It’s in effluent from dental offices that mercury can be introduced to the broader environment.

How dentists can prevent mercury from entering wastewater systems

The most effective way for dentists to keep mercury from entering wastewater systems remains having amalgam separators installed and recycled according to best practices.

In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that compliance with its dental amalgam rule, which requires most practices to have amalgam separators installed and that waste disposed of properly, will result in a decrease of 5.1 tons of mercury released into public wastewater systems. Before clinics that used and removed amalgam were required to have separators installed, most of that 5.1 tons of mercury that entered public wastewater systems eventually reached the environment at some point.

Amalgam separators come in many different sizes and types, which means every practice can find separators that fit their needs. Separators are also affordable and readily available through many partners, including DRNA.

In many cases, the type of amalgam separator your facility uses will come down to the size of practice and what types of operations are conducted there. There are also chairside separators that can more easily capture and separate dental amalgam waste when it is used or removed during procedures.

Why the EPA is focused on the dental industry

The EPA regulated the dental industry closely when it comes to mercury because dental clinics are the main source of mercury that is discharged into public water systems. Of the estimated 103,000 dental practices that use or remove dental amalgam in the United States, most are connected to publicly owned treatment works, or POTW for short.

These publicly owned treatment works accept wastewater from the community, treat it and then release the treated water. However, the mercury and metals found in dental amalgam can hang around in the “sludge” that is left over from the water treatment process.

According to the EPA, this sludge becomes problematic when it contains mercury because it is generally either incinerated, sent to a landfill or used as land application, sometimes as fertilizer. These processes release mercury into the environment either through the air or through leaking into water sources.

Know local, state and federal regulations

Aside from the EPA’s dental amalgam rule, there may be additional local and state rules and regulations pertaining to keeping wastewater safe and free of mercury.

One example of a common local and state regulation is that municipalities and states may require a dental practice to not only have amalgam separators installed, but that equipment must be from an approved vendor.

At the end of the day, though, it is up to dentists and those managing their practices and facilities to make sure that these regulations are being followed. However, there are partners available who specialize in ensuring compliance with regulations and help safely dispose of all types of hazardous and regulated materials that are present in dental practices.

Get in compliance with DRNA

DRNA can partner with your dental practice or similar facility to make sure it is in compliance with EPA and other rules regarding dental amalgam waste and other waste types that must be discarded by following specific steps and best practices.

Contact DRNA to begin a conversation on how we can partner with your business and make following all regulations a much less stressful process – giving you more time to focus on patient health and satisfaction.