AUGUSTA – A legislative committee voted on Earth Day to wait one year before deciding whether to ban mercury dental fillings as a way of reducing mercury in the environment.

The vote to carry over L.D. 1327 and L.D. 1338 came after Natural Resources Committee members heard testimony from the state toxicologist that banning mercury in dental fillings would make little difference in the environment, and that there is no good science showing health risks from amalgam-mercury fillings.

State toxicologist Dr. Andrew Smith said his Bureau of Health opposed both bills for three reasons: There’s no evidence that people with the mercury fillings have health risks; experts aren’t sure if alternative fillings are safer; and because the best way to eliminate mercury fillings is to do what’s being done: improve dental health and reduce tooth decay, which reduces the need for fillings.

People with amalgam-mercury fillings are receiving low levels of mercury vapors, especially those who grind their teeth, Smith said, adding that the levels have not yet proven harmful. In the next year, two long-range studies, one involving children in Boston and Farmington, Maine, looking at the mercury fillings will be completed, he said. The findings of the Boston-Farmington study are due out in November, Smith said.

But because mercury in the environment – as opposed to in the mouth – is a proven serious health risk, and because Maine has already banned mercury in products like automobile switches, it makes sense to continue eliminating it in fillings, Sen. Dennis Damon, D-Trenton said.

One way mercury gets into the environment is when people with mercury-amalgam fillings die and are cremated. And more bodies are being cremated every year, observed Sen. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake. In 1990, 2,640 bodies were cremated in Maine, which emitted 9 pounds of mercury. In 2003, 6,213 bodies were created, emitting 20 pounds of mercury, data from the Department of Environmental Protection showed.

Committee members voted to draft legislation to create tougher controls on crematories so mercury emissions would not escape into the air. Sen. Scott Cowger, D-Hallowell, said the committee would try to get the bill drafted and presented at a public hearing soon.

But Rep. Robert Daigle, R-Arundel, made it clear he thought proposals to ban mercury were going overboard. “Maine is getting hysterical about mercury,” Daigle complained.

If a shovel of dirt from anyone’s back yard were analyzed, mercury would be found, he said, adding that mercury is everywhere. The amount of mercury in fillings is tiny and not harmful, he said.

Rep. Jane Eberle, D-South Portland, disagreed, saying any amount of mercury is dangerous. “How close do we want to get to zero? I say zero,” Eberle said, adding Maine should continue to outlaw the use of mercury.

Martin agreed that mercury is a pollutant to worry about, and work to banish it should continue. “There is a danger,” Martin said. “People are walking around more sick every day, and we’re paying for it.”

Dentists attending Friday’s workshop asked that mercury fillings not be outlawed, saying they don’t use it much anymore because consumers don’t want it, but it’s an alternative for some.

Amalgam-mercury fillings last longer than alternative fillings. For disabled patients who have difficulty following dental care instructions, “the amalgam fillings are a must, or the tooth will have to come out,” said pediatric dentist Jonathan Shenkin of Bangor.

The legislative proposals to outlaw mercury fillings will be considered again in 2006.

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