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What OSHA and the FDA want dentists to know about mercury

What OSHA and the FDA want dentists to know about mercury

Many jobs come with hazards that employees must take into account. Dentists and others employed by dental practices are no different.

As the entity charged with creating and enforcing rules regarding workplace safety, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) keeps a close eye on one potential hazard those working in the dental industry are well aware of: mercury that is found in dental amalgam.

Numerous OSHA safety standards are applicable to those in the dentistry profession. This post will examine what dentists and others should know about mercury waste found in dental amalgam in regards to OSHA’s standards.

What is mercury?

Mercury occurs naturally in the environment. It can be found naturally in two forms: liquid or gas. Metallic mercury is a shiny, odorless, silver-white in color liquid. At higher temperatures, the liquid becomes a colorless and remains odorless.

Mercury is not just used by dentists for dental amalgam mixtures. It’s used in several other industries, as well. Mercury is used in the production process of chlorine gas, caustic soda, thermometers, barometers, batteries and electric switches.

The chemical element is also used in some preservatives, heat transfer technology, pigments, catalysts and lubricating oils.

Why is mercury an environmental concern?

Although mercury is a naturally occurring element, when people are exposed to too much mercury, they can experience health effects that range in severity.

The Centers for Disease Control warns that those health effects to mercury exposure can include eyes, skin and stomach irritation; coughing; chest pain; difficulty breathing; insomnia; indecision; headache; weakness or exhaustion; and weight loss.

How severe the health effects of mercury exposure are depends on how much mercury a worker was exposed to and for how long they were exposed. The type of work is an additional factor.

Dental amalgam contains mercury

Mercury is found in the dental amalgam used for silver fillings, among other metals. These fillings are made of almost equal parts liquid mercury and a powder that contains silver, tin, copper, zinc and other metals.

Both the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the American Dental Association (ADA) have stated that dental amalgam is perfect safe for filling cavities and fighting tooth decay. The ADA goes even further, stating that the amount of mercury that is found in the amalgam is not high enough to pose a health risk to people who choose that material for their fillings.

Still, large amounts of dental amalgam can be a health concern to dental workers. If not disposed of properly, dental amalgam can be harmful to the environment, as well. Dental amalgam waste can find its way into the environment if not properly handled, leading to the possibility of mercury leaking into the air or water sources.

All dental practices should be sure that they are using proper amalgam separator equipment and amalgam recycling best practices to negate these possible risks.

In what industries mercury exposure a concern to workers?

When taking proper precautions, dental practice employees don’t have to worry much about being exposed to levels of mercury high enough to pose much of a health risk. OSHA warns that higher levels of mercury exposure can result in permanent nervous system and kidney damage.

Workers in industries such as mining, production and transportation of mercury are at the highest risk of harmful exposure. Miners or refiners of gold and silver ores also could encounter more often high levels of mercury.

Precautions for dental employees handling amalgam

Since dentists and others who are employed by dental practices often handle dental amalgam, they should be aware of OSHA standards that pertain to their jobs.

When handling amalgam and amalgam waste, dentists could be exposed to mercury in amounts that exceed federal safety standards. Removal of dental amalgam is one instance where this could be the case. OSHA therefore requires these employees wear respiratory protection.

This requirement is in place because some amounts of mercury can be released when working with amalgam fillings. No, this amount in itself is not enough to harm the patient. By itself, it’s not enough to harm the dentist, either. The concern, though, is that the dentist is performing these tasks often and repeatedly throughout the day, day after day.

OSHA requires dental practices to perform hazard assessments to determine if employees removing silver fillings are exposed to levels of mercury that exceed safety standards.

Required respiratory protection

If a dental practice’s employees are in fact at risk of coming into contact with levels of mercury that exceed safety standards, then OSHA requires those employees wear respiratory protection to ensure their safety.

It should be noted that before making employees wear respirators, OSHA requires employers to ensure that each employer is medically able to wear the protection in the first place. Employees must be trained on how to wear respirators, put them on, take them off, clean and store their respirators.

OSHA requires that employers inform their employees of any potential risk of exposure to mercury from working with amalgam.

FDA recommends better labeling of risk potential

OSHA requires that employers inform their employees of any potential risk of exposure to mercury from working with amalgam.

But OSHA is not the only government agency trying to help dental practices better look out for their employees’ safety. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has also released guidance on how to reduce the risks that dental amalgam may pose, key among them the potential for mercury exposure.

The FDA recommends providing labeling that makes clear the fact that mercury is found in dental amalgam and that harm could be done if its vapors are inhaled.

Follow dental amalgam recycling best practices

While your dentist practice should always follow OSHA and other government safety regulations and guidance that protect employees and patients, it is also important to keep tabs on environmental regulations that apply to your business.

DRNA is the dental profession’s top environmental compliance partner. If your practice is looking for a partner that provides solutions on a variety of waste disposal, including amalgam, x-ray waste, sharps and more, contact DRNA. We provide comprehensive solutions that make compliance more manageable and stress-free.