Regulatory Guidelines for Mercury - Page 2

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Questions That Need to be Asked

But even with the lower levels approved by WHO and ATSDR, there are still questions that need to be asked. For example, if someone can exhibit symptoms of mercury poisoning at 25 mcg/m3, does it mean it’s safe for them to be exposed to 24 mcg/m3? Is it only the last 1 mcg of mercury that’s toxic and the previous 24 mcg are safe to inhale? If only one employee showed symptoms after breathing in 25 mcg, does that mean that the other employees haven’t been poisoned? The answer to each question is no. The other 24 mcg of mercury aren’t safe and if you’re exposed to any amount of mercury you’re being poisoned whether you show symptoms of it or not. But these regulations are better than nothing at all.

What the Regulations Mean to You

These varying regulations mean that you’ll be protected at work to an extent but you’re ultimately on your own once you leave the workplace. One regulatory agency says that 50 mcg/m3 is the safe level, another says 25 mcg/m3, and yet another insists 3 mcg/m3 per hour over a 24-hour period. These regulatory agencies have arbitrarily decided that certain amounts of mercury are “safe” but they can’t agree on what “safe” levels are.

Regulating mercury is a great concept, but only one of the agencies (ATSDR) considers the other sources of mercury an individual may be exposed to during both work and non-work hours. For example, the amount of mercury received from diet, environment and amalgam fillings during non-work hours must also be taken into consideration when assessing a person’s total mercury exposure.

Flaws in the Safe Level

The bottom line here is that “safe” levels have nothing to do with whether or not you’re being poisoned. This so-called “safe” level doesn’t mean that some atoms of mercury entering your body are doing damage and some aren’t. Just because you weren’t exposed to enough mercury in a day or a year to manifest a symptom related to chronic mercury poisoning to manifest doesn’t mean you aren’t still being poisoned. Is it any consolation knowing that you were being poisoned daily by mercury but you wouldn’t experience a symptom related to it for 5 or 10 years? I think not!

The amount of mercury that amalgam fillings release into the oral cavity can range from 3 mcg/m3 to over 4295 mcg/Hg/m3. The amount will vary due to the many factors you’ve learned. But what’s released from amalgams isn’t regulated or monitored by any agency. Unfortunately, when mercury vapor from amalgams exceeds “safe” levels, those with these fillings can’t leave the contaminated area because they follow you wherever you go. The only way to ensure your mouth is mercury free is to have the fillings removed. But don’t forget you’ll still need to deal with the mercury stored in the body.

Types of Stimulation and Mercury Vapor Released

Now I’ll compare what the various regulatory agencies say is a ‘safe’ level of mercury at the workplace to how much mercury vapor amalgam fillings release during various forms of stimulation. If you have amalgam fillings think of your mouth as the workplace and you’ll understand the point I’m making. The following table shows the results of a study by Malmström, et al.

Types of Stimulation and Mercury Vapor Released

Condition or Stimulation

Amount of Hg* Released

Amalgam fillings at rest

    36 mcg/Hg */m3**

Chewing food  

    68 mcg/Hg/m3  

Eating sweets 

    70 mcg/Hg/m3  

Tooth brushing

  272 mcg/Hg/m3  

Polishing amalgams after a dental cleaning***

  504 mcg/Hg/m3  

Wet (water cooled) polishing an amalgam filling***

  597 mcg/Hg/m3  

Dry polishing an amalgam filling***

4295 mcg/Hg/m3  

    * Hg is the symbol for mercury

** m3 is a cubic meter of air
                  *** Stimulation initiated at a dental office

But what about during the removal process? Drilling out just one averaged size amalgam filling can release up to 4,000 mcg/Hg/m3 of mercury vapor. As you see, significant amounts of mercury vapor can be released during some very common forms of amalgam stimulation. This will help you understand why I promote the safe removal of amalgam fillings!

“Safe” Levels in Dentistry

Now let’s turn from industry guidelines to dentistry guidelines. Despite the fact that the ADA knows amalgam fillings release mercury, they have never established safety guidelines for placing or removing them. They have never suggested that the patient, the dentist, the dental office staff, or the environment be protected from mercury. And no regulatory agency has assumed responsibility for monitoring and regulating the mercury released from amalgam fillings at the dental office. Yet, the dental profession is one of the biggest users, and abusers, of mercury.

Think about this for a moment! If the ADA did establish a “safe” level of exposure to mercury from amalgam fillings, they would not only have to monitor every patient with amalgams throughout the day, but also the dental office, the dentist, dental office staff and even the office waste water. And every dental office in the country would have to use a mercury vapor analyzer, or equivalent instrument, to evaluate each patient during the placement and removal of amalgam fillings. I really don’t think this will happen.


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