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How to find the right amalgam separator for your dental practice

How to find the right amalgam separator for your dental practice

Time is running out for dental practices that have not yet installed dental amalgam separators.

This summer, the Environmental Protection Agency's rule that requires most dental practices to install and maintain amalgam separators will go into effect. By that point, dental facilities should already have dental amalgam separators installed, in operation and have a plan for how they will maintain compliance with the new regulations.

But there is a lot to learn about this equipment, how it works and how to remain in compliance through proper use. Primarily, dental offices should know what type of amalgam separator is best for their specific facility layout and recycling needs.

Why does my dental practice need an amalgam separator?

The answer to this question is simple - because it's required by law. On June 9, 2017, the EPA issued its final rule on the matter. The rule requires most dental offices in the U.S. to install amalgam separators.

Most dental offices will need to be in compliance by July 14, 2020. Newer dental offices that were not in practice as of July 14, 2017, needed to be in compliance right away.

But there's an environmental aspect to the ruling, too, hence why the EPA is involved. Dental amalgam contains mercury, which in large quantities can pose an environmental concern. If too much amalgam passes through dental office wastewater systems, then the mercury it contains could potentially reach water sources or be dispersed through the air.

At that point, the mercury is considered a health hazard to humans and animals.

How amalgam separators work

Amalgam separators are installed in dental facilities so that they can remove the amalgam particles from wastewater that enters drains throughout the office. This prevents the material from reaching sewer systems.

There are several ways amalgam separators actually remove the material from waste that enters the equipment. Those methods include ion exchange technology, sedimentation, filtration, centrifugation or a combination of those methods.

Types of amalgam separators

Just as there are different methods in which amalgam separators accomplish their task of preventing possibly harmful material from entering wastewater systems, there are also different types of amalgam separators dental facilities can install to best meet their needs.

Dental practices should do their research on which type of amalgam separator best fits their facilities' needs, but here is a brief overview to get started.

Sedimentation units

Sedimentation units slow the flow of wastewater, which allows amalgam particles to settle and separate from the wastewater.

Filtration units

As the name suggests, this type of separator uses various types of filters to catch both coarse and fine amalgam particles before they enter wastewater systems.

Centrifuge units

Centrifuge units use centrifugal force to remove amalgam particles from wastewater.

Combination units

As mentioned above, some amalgam separators use multiple methods to make sure all amalgam is captured.

This document (PDF) from the American Dental Association can be used as a resource to learn more about how each type of amalgam separator operates.

What type is best for your practice?

The Wisconsin Dental Association has provided an excellent resource for determining what type of amalgam separator may be best suited for a practice.

The process recommended by the WDA begins by having facilities consider the following questions:

  • Are any of the amalgam-generating chairs in the facility centrally plumbed?
  • Does the facility have a wet ring or dry vacuum pump system?
  • Is there enough space for a separator unit to be installed at or below office grade?
  • Does the separator need to be installed ahead of or after the wet ring or dry vacuum pump systems?

After answering those questions, take into consideration affordability, whether a recycling program is included in the purchase cost, maintenance needs, capacity, etc.

Consider building layout and design when choosing a separator

Many dental facilities commonly install separators in vacuum system piping in-line close to or near operating chairs, in-line at central locations further up the piping than the vacuum pump or at the outlet side of an air/water separator.

The separator equipment typically can be placed in a basement. Facilities can save office space this way and make sure wastewater flows properly so the separator equipment can do its job correctly.

If an office does not have a basement, or their are size concerns, then chairside amalgam separators may be needed.

Have a plan for following regulations

No matter the type of amalgam separator a practice chooses, a maintenance plan has to be established and followed. As separators fill, they need to be emptied and cleaned. Each type has its own maintenance procedures, so knowledge of how to operate and maintain the equipment is essential.

Before any type of purchase is made, dental facilities should make sure they are educated in the equipment's maintenance needs. Specific employees should also be trained on how to take care of this regular maintenance.

Additionally, employees should be educated on the regulations that apply to the separators and their use. The EPA has federal-level regulations that must be followed, but state and local municipalities may have their own regulations, too.

Recycling dental amalgam waste

One of the most important procedures regarding amalgam separators is recycling the amalgam waste and ensuring it is handled properly.

Many equipment providers and vendors can assist in this area. The best waste removal and recycling service providers offer programs that make staying in compliance in this area simple and headache-free for dentists.

Does my dental practice need to comply with the EPA rule?

Most likely, yes. Nearly all dental facilities that discharge their wastewater into what the EPA defines as publicly owned treatment works (POTW) have to comply with this rule.

However, there are a few exceptions to this rule. Among those exceptions are dental facilities that does not place dental amalgam and does not remove the substance unless in limited circumstances. Offices that practice specific specialties are also exempted, including oral pathology, orthodontics, periodontics, prosthodontics and more.

Mobile units are exempted from the rule, too.

Visit the EPA's website for more details on what types of practices must comply with the rule.

Partner with DRNA

DRNA is proud to be regarded as a complete regulatory solution for the dental practice community.

Contact DRNA if you wish to learn more about our dental amalgam separators and how we can ensure your practice remains in compliance with all regulations affecting your facility.