Healing Our World: Weekly Comment

By Jackie Alan Giuliano, Ph.D.

Free at Last, Free at Last - of Mercury

What are we doing?
everywhere we turn, poison abounds.
What are we doing?
everywhere, suffering abounds?
What are we doing?
the Earth, the air, the water, the creatures
all feel the effects.
Don't worry - it's someone else's problem.
Don't worry - it's in someone else's backyard
When will we see?
all problems are common.
all backyards are shared.
all lives are one.

-- Jackie Giuliano

For years I have struggled with pain in my teeth while eating. Aging fillings and poorly done crowns contributed to my discomfort. This week, I completed restoration work that took the last two years, with most of the time spent waiting for the money to be saved to get the work done. Finally, after 10 hours total of grueling time in the dentist’s chair over four sessions, my fillings and crowns have been restored and replaced – and all the mercury has been removed from my mouth.

As much as 70 percent of the traditional silver filling material used by dentists is mercury, one of the most toxic substances known. Mercury is a pervasive, deep penetrating chemical that is easily absorbed by the human body. Brain tissue is especially sensitive to this metal. Chronic, long term exposure to mercury can manifest itself in the body in a variety of ways including nervousness, mood instability, tremors, abnormal reflexes, kidney damage, impaired hearing and brain cancer.


Mercury amalgams are routinely used by dentists today. (Photo courtesy Northwest Product Stewardship Council)
Exposure to mercury can lead to infertility and result in birth defects. In acute exposure to large amounts, abdominal pain, mouth pain, vomiting, blood in the urine, difficulty moving and kidney failure often result. It is known to impair the functioning of the immune system.

Yet we dump mercury into the environment – and hence into our bodies – at alarming rates.

Mercury has been known for thousands of years. It was found in an Egyptian tomb dating back to 1500 BC. It has fascinated people since its discovery, as it is the only metal that is a liquid at room temperature. Mercury has been used widely in the industrial age and over time, tens of thousands of workers have suffered from it.

In 18th and 19th centuries, mercury was widely used in the manufacture of mirrors and in the making of hats. It has been well documented that madness was common among the mirror-makers of Venice, Italy and the hat makers of London. We now know that those workers who inhaled the vapors and touched the metal were displaying what we know today as the symptoms of acute and chronic mercury poisoning, resulting in neurological disorders. The term "mad as a hatter" originated during those times.

I wonder how much of my lack of energy and periodic depressions over the years could be attributed to all that toxic mercury in my mouth.

Mercury use is still widespread today in the dentistry, thermometer, fluorescent lamp, barometer, pigment, fungicide, insecticide and dry cell battery industries.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has reported that mercury contamination in the ecosystem is pervasive worldwide. In fact, it turns up in very unexpected places. A sperm whale found dead off the Danish coast in January 1996 contained so much mercury and cadmium that its intestine had to be buried at a special hazardous waste site!

Dentists haven’t always been such strong proponents of toxic mercury fillings. In fact, before 1840, there were no dental schools, no dental licensing bureaus, no national dental organizations and no dental board exams. The Mercury-Free.com website says, “Dentists were either self-taught by trial and error or were apprenticed under a practicing medical-dentist. In the 1830s anybody could be a dentist. All one had to do was to hang a sign up and he was a instant dentist.”


Mercury amalgam leaches from fillings as they age. (Photo courtesy Dental Virtue)
Mercury fillings came into use in the 1830s, first in England and then in the United States. Mercury provided an attractive option to what was previously done when a person had a cavity. Before the use of mercury, either the tooth was painfully pulled, without anesthetic, which wasn’t invented until later, or warm gold was hammered into the tooth cavity. Mercury could be poured into cavities and, with the addition of other substances like silver and other metals to make it harden, the procedure could be done in minutes. This combining of mercury and other metals became known as the amalgam.

The toxic effects of mercury were known to doctors in the 1830s, but since the field of dentistry had split off from the medical profession between 1780 to 1800 in the United States, craftsman-dentists proliferated, and they had little regard for health and safety. These craftsmen-dentists were often barbers, wood or metal carvers, blacksmiths or just people with no prior experience in any trade.

My teeth throb just thinking about it!

Doctors at the time were very concerned about the use of mercury by these dentists and their ignorance of their patients' medical welfare. The medical-dentists got together and created the world's first dental school in the United States in 1840 as well as the first national dental organization, the American Society of Dental Surgeons (ASDS), to raise the standards of dental education and care.

A resolution was passed by the ASDS in 1843 saying that the use of amalgam was considered to be malpractice. But rather than lose patients, more and more ASDS members split from this position and used amalgam, and the practice continued to spread.

An outgrowth of this Amalgam War was the creation of the American Dental Association (ADA) in 1859. The ADA was created by a coalition of medical dentists who were using mercury amalgams together with the craftsmen-dentists. This history illuminates why, to this day, the ADA lobbies local, state and federal government officials and is often found opposing public health and safety measures.

The ADA continues to support amalgam use, fights tighter controls on mercury pollution from dental offices, and supports fluoridation, believed by many to have toxic effects. It is an organization that emerged from the greed of those who would place the interests of business above those of public and environmental health and safety.

Dental offices continue to be the source of large amounts of mercury pollution.

Regulation of mercury pollution is inconsistent at best. For example, mercury fillings in your mouth can have up to 700,000 parts per million of mercury. Yet the U.S. Food and Drug Administration takes tuna fish off the grocery shelves when it has only one part per million mercury.

The world is filled with a tragic litany of the health effects of ingesting mercury. In December 1971 in Iraq, 6,530 people became ill and 459 died from eating bread tainted with mercury. The seed grain had been treated with a fungicide containing methyl-mercury before it was shipped from Mexico. The seed was supposed to be planted, but instead it was used directly to make bread.


Minamata Memorial was completed in 1996, the 40th anniversary of the official discovery of Minamata disease. (Photo courtesy Minamata City)
Waste containing mercuric chloride, a catalyst in the production of plastics, was released into the bays of Minamata and Niigata, Japan in 1953 and 1960, and these incidents revealed the perils of mercury to the world. To this day, Japanese children are born with neurological disorders from the mercury poisoning.

Karen Wetterhahn, Dartmouth College's first female chemistry professor, was 48 when she died a year after being exposed to dimethylmercury in August 1996. She was wearing latex gloves and goggles, but a tiny drop of the deadly mercury compound seeped through the gloves.

No one knows for sure what effect mercury dental fillings may have on our health. But many people feel that their lingering illnesses result from the small amounts of mercury that are released daily from the fillings. Mercury is known to suppress the immune system.

The amount of mercury released from a filling depends on the age of the amalgam, whether you smoke or clench or grind your teeth. Mercury boils off the surface of fillings in small amounts when we eat hot food. As the filling ages – as in my case – the amalgam breaks down more and more, releasing more and more mercury into the body.

What effect might your mercury fillings be having on your health? Good luck trying to figure it out. There are more than 200 symptoms listed in medical literature over the last few years for mercury poisoning. Mercury poisoning can happen with one large dose of mercury or small doses, as in the case of dental amalgams. A list of some of the health problems attributed to mercury ingestion can be found in the Resources section below.

We should all be very concerned.

Sweden banned dental amalgams in 1994. Germany has stopped using most forms containing mercury, and Austria, Denmark, and Finland plan to outlaw amalgams.

Don't expect much support for your questions from your average dentist. They hear very little about mercury toxicity in dental school and are flooded with propaganda from the ADA.

But there are dentists out there who are very concerned. You can often find them listed as “biological dentists.” When my mercury fillings were removed by the Broadway Dental Clinic in Seattle, a place that is very concerned over the use of mercury, a respirator was placed on my face to prevent me from inhaling any mercury vapors, and the doctor and his assistant wore filtrations masks as well. That clinic also takes great care in the disposal of the removed mercury, and no mercury enters the public waste stream from their office.

Getting rid of all mercury fillings may not be the answer for everyone, as this could release the mercury in large amounts into your system if your dentist is not doing it carefully. For fillings that you get from now on, it would be best to ask for the newer resins instead of mercury amalgams.

Mercury poisoning is yet another example of the pervasive onslaught of chemicals that has invaded our world. As consumers, we have the power to stop it by carefully selecting where we spend our dollars. Use non-mercury batteries, digital thermometers, write your elected officials and please, find a dentist who is sensitive to this issue.

Fighting this issue, as with all types of activism, begins by just opening our mouths - carefully.


1. A comprehensive web site on the dangers of mercury fillings is at: http://www.mercury-free.com/index.htm

2. Learn about the basics of mercury at: http://www.xyroth-enterprises.co.uk/mercmetl.htm

3. Health effects from mercury poisoning include abnormal hunger, anorexia nervosa, antibiotic resistance, arthritis-like joint pain, asthma, attention deficit disorder, birth defects, yeast infections, cerebral palsy, chronic fatigue, diabetes, depression, food hypersensitivities, gum disease (periodontitis), hearing disturbances, heart attacks, hyperglycemia, immune system imbalances, menstrual disturbances, migraine headaches, oral diseases, Parkinson’s disease-like symptoms, and tremors. Learn more at: http://www.mercury-free.com/index.htm

4. Help is available from a number of sources. Look for biological dentistry, the practice of dentists who are concerned with this issue. You can also see a naturopathic practitioner. Many diagnostic tools exist that a trained naturopath can use to determine if you are suffering from mercury toxicity. A searchable directory of holistic practitioners can be found at: http://www.holisticmed.com/www/directory.asp

5. Learn about global mercury cleanup efforts in an Environment News Service report at: http://ens-news.com/ens/sep2002/2002-09-13-03.asp

6. Read of the worldwide concern about the spread of mercury at: http://rainbow.ldeo.columbia.edu/edf/text/mercury.asp

7. There is growing international concern over the illegal dumping of thousands of tons of mercury, used in the extraction of gold from ore, in the Brazilian Amazon area. Mercury toxicity has been reported in hundreds of cases in the area and contamination of the water table is likely. Visit Amazon Watch at: http://www.amazonwatch.org/ to monitor this situation.

8. Find out who your Congressional representatives are and e-mail them. Tell them you want action taken now. If you know your Zip code, you can find them at: http://www.visi.com/juan/congress/ziptoit.asp

{Jackie Alan Giuliano, Ph.D. is a writer and teacher in Seattle and the author of "Healing Our World," A Journey from the Darkness Into the Light," available at: http://www.xlibris.com/HealingOurWorld.asp and “Of This Earth, Reflections on Connections,” available at: http://ofthisearth.org. Please send your thoughts, comments, and visions to him at: jackie@healingourworld.com and visit his website at: http://www.healingourworld.com}