When it comes to a mouthful of mercury, Pam Anderson doesn’t mince words.

“End this toxic assault on humanity,” she urged legislators during a recent legislative hearing on two bills that would ban the use of mercury in dental fillings, phased in over three years.

“Implanting the same elemental mercury that we have banned in fever thermometers,” Anderson continued, “in the mouths of children, pregnant women, the poor and willing Maine citizens must be made a criminal act.”

The goal of L.D.s 1327 and 1338, sponsors say, is to reduce the mercury that gets into Maine’s environment. Dental mercury has been found in municipal sewage as a result of it being absorbed by the body and then excreted. It also gets sent into the atmosphere during the cremation of cadavers.

Once in the environment, mercury, a heavy metal, accumulates in the food chain, leading to advisories against eating fish in Maine and elsewhere. Mercury in humans can adversely affect childhood development and lead to other health problems.

Anderson, of Houlton, said by passing the legislation and outlawing the use of mercury fillings, Maine’s lawmakers have an opportunity to “close a dark chapter in dental history.”

The wife of dentist Thomas Anderson, whose practice has been mercury-free since 1983, Anderson said, “There are alternatives” available that work as well, are similarly priced and offer similar durability.

The Natural Resources Committee will hold a work session on the bills on Friday, April 22, in the Cross Office Building. Anderson, says she’ll be there. So too, likely, will be those from the opposing side: The American Dental Association.

The ADA has steadfastly opposed efforts to outlaw the use of mercury in dental fillings. The element makes up 50 percent – sometimes more – of the metal-colored fillings some dentists call silver amalgam.

One ADA consultant likened the material in amalgam fillings to a spice.

“Similar to the way that sodium and chlorine – both hazardous in their pure state – combine to form ordinary table salt, the mercury in dental amalgam combines with other metals to form a stable dental filling,” writes Dr. Frederick Eichmiller in an ADA position paper.

A mercury ban, says the ADA, “would deprive dental patients of a valuable and, in some instances, irreplaceable treatment option.”

Dr. James B. Bramson, the executive director of the ADA, said Tuesday by telephone from his Chicago office that he expects there will always be a need for amalgam fillings. It’s the only filling material available suited for certain dental needs, such as fillings that go below the gums, he maintains.

Bramson also said the use of amalgam is steadily declining due to people’s changing dental health habits and more requests for other filling materials for cosmetic purposes. That means the amount of mercury in dental use will become so insignificant in the future that it’ll be a nonissue, he said.

John James, an environmental specialist with the state Department of Environmental Protection, says the makers of dental mercury acknowledge producing 32.5 tons of the element in the United States during 2001, the most recent year with numbers available.

James said 300 pounds of that mercury made its way to Maine that year for use by the state’s dentists.

That’s probably a tiny fraction of the amount of dental mercury in the mouths of Mainers, he said, but noted that the use of dental mercury is slowing after reaching a peak when baby boomers were in their youth and having cavities filled frequently.

The legislation to outlaw the continued use of mercury in fillings is aimed in part at reducing the need to capture it through other methods.

Last year, the Legislature took a step toward capturing some dental mercury when it required dental offices to install separators that trap and hold mercury removed from fillings.

Jon Hinck of the Natural Resources Council of Maine said that while mechanical steps such as separators can capture some dental mercury, as long as the substance is in use it will still pollute the environment through human waste and crematories. The NRCM is not taking an official position on the bills.

Hinck and James each noted that an independent group, the Association of Metropolitan Sewerage Agencies, has performed studies indicating 80 percent of the mercury flowing into metropolitan sewers from households comes from human waste, from individuals with mercury amalgam fillings. The AMA acknowledges that chewing can cause minute amounts of mercury to vaporize, while Hinck says body chemistry results in leaching the element from fillings and into the body.

In addition, James said that Maine’s five crematoriums released an estimated 20 pounds of mercury in 2002, and that with an aging population, the number of cremations done each year is expected to continue growing. In 1990, he noted, there were 1,547 cremations in the state; by 2002 the number climbed to 6,183.

To prevent that mercury from escaping into the environment, operators would need to either install special scrubbers on their exhaust stacks or to have mercury amalgam fillings removed prior to cremation.

James said lawmakers in one Midwestern state briefly discussed filling removals, before scrapping further legislative talks.

The United Kingdom this year began requiring crematoriums to install exhaust system scrubbers. The British Broadcasting Corp. reported that funeral directors estimated the technology would add slightly less than $200 (U.S.) to cremation cost.

There’s been no talk in Maine of requiring such scrubbers, but Sen. John Martin, sponsor of L.D. 1327, said he has concerns about crematoriums contributing mercury from fillings into the atmosphere.

“There is one filling that is removed before cremation,” he noted: “Gold fillings. That says a lot about the value of mercury fillings, doesn’t it?”

Martin says his bill is a way of eliminating about half of the mercury coming into Maine annually from all sources.

Sen. Dennis Damon, who proposed L.D. 1338, like Martin says that if nothing else, he expects the bills to generate discussion and help educate Mainers about what’s in their mouths.

If it includes mercury, “It’s a toxic material,” said Damon.

How dental mercury pollutes air, land and water

• Solid waste: Scrap mercury-laced amalgam is sometimes discarded in trash, and then either dumped in landfills or incinerated.

• Biomedical waste incineration: Waste dental mercury is often disposed of in biomedical waste containers. A survey found that 25 to 30 percent of dentists place their contact amalgam wastes into biomedical “red bags” that are often incinerated.

• Storage: Before pre-encapsulated amalgams became the norm, dentists used to make their own mercury fillings; some still have stocks of mercury stored in their offices.

• Human waste: Amalgam leached from fillings has been determined to be the primary source of mercury in human waste.

• Cremation: Crematoria emit significant quantities of mercury into the air.

Source: Natural Resource Council of Maine

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