A much-needed proposal was hypocritically rejected, then buried—and this time it wasn’t the FDA’s fault.
A recent news report revealed an FDA proposal from 2011 that would have told dentists to avoid using mercury fillings in pregnant women, nursing mothers, children, and people with mercury allergies, kidney diseases, and neurological problems. It also contained a more general alert to dentists asking them to consider alternatives to mercury fillings on all patients.
This proposal was generated after FDA officials reviewed scientific literature and, at a “town hall” meeting, heard from dental patients who described the health problems they experienced with mercury fillings.
Unfortunately, the FDA’s proposal was rejected by senior officials at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) after a so-called cost-benefit analysis was performed. It was then hushed up. According to HHS, out-of-pocket costs to patients would triple if alternative fillings replaced mercury, and an Obama Administration official said the increased cost would disproportionately affect low-income Americans. We wonder if what they really meant was that it would cost Medicare and Medicaid—that is, the government itself—too much money?
Mercury fillings—also called amalgam fillings—are blends of mercury and other metal alloys like silver (for a long time, in a deliberate deception, dentists called them “silver fillings” to avoid the stigma attached to mercury). The fillings release very low levels of mercury vapor that patients inhale continuously. Patients with multiple fillings, of course, inhale more vapor. Certain activities, such as chewing, brushing, or drinking hot liquids, can increase the amount of vapor released.
Mercury is a Deadly Neurotoxin. When mercury gets into the central nervous system, it has a half-life of between fifteen and thirty years. Once it’s inhaled into the lungs, it enters the bloodstream and can accumulate in the kidneys, liver, and brain. The effects of exposure to mercury are devastating. Studies have shown mercury fillings to be associated with Alzheimer’s disease, autoimmunity, kidney dysfunction, infertility, polycystic ovary syndrome, neurotransmitter imbalances, food allergies, multiple sclerosis, thyroid problems, and an impaired immune system. Mercury in the nervous system is especially harmful, causing all sorts of problems: tremors, insomnia, polyneuropathy, headaches, weakness, blurred vision, and more.
Public concern about the toxic effects of mercury has increasingly caused many dentists to turn to alternative fillings. But mercury fillings are still widely used by dentists serving some of our most disadvantaged populations—in the taxpayer-funded Medicare and Medicaid programs, in the military, in prisons, and on Indian reservations.
HHS’s behind-the-scenes rejection of FDA’s proposal is especially inexcusable given the recent United Nations ban on mercury, both in the products themselves and in processes where mercury is released. If 140 countries can agree that mercury should be removed from consumer products, why is HHS adamant about keeping mercury in the mouths of poor people—while hypocritically expressing concern for those same poor people?
The proposed FDA warning didn’t even go very far. It includes numerous statements such as “there is no direct evidence of harm” from mercury fillings in the general population.
It should be noted that some of the alternatives to mercury fillings, such as composite fillings, are not without risks. We’ve previously reported that bisphenol-A (BPA)—an endocrine disrupter linked with cancer, birth defects, and heart disease—can be found in some composite tooth fillings. There are no perfect options, but well-informed consumers should be able to make their own decisions.
That the proposed FDA warning, half-hearted as it was, remained secret for so long is especially worrisome. How much other information is being withheld from the public at the behest of special interests—or for other political reasons?
This story is also a reminder that even the FDA has overseers who exercise control over it. In this case, the agency tried to move in the right direction and was overruled by its political masters.
Write to the Department of Health and Human Services and tell them how disappointed you are to learn that this warning from the FDA was rejected and then kept secret. Mercury is a dangerous neurotoxin and should be removed from all fillings to protect the health and safety of all Americans. Please send your message immediately.