Dental Tribune America

The future of dentistry in a world without mercury: An NGO’s perspective

By Anita Vazquez Tibau
October 14, 2013

In order to discuss the future of dentistry, we must first look at the history of the use of mercury in dentistry. Mercury is number 80 on the periodic table of elements. It is the most toxic nonradioactive material known to man and the most studied element since the beginning of alchemy.

Mercury used in dentistry has been documented as far back as the Ming Dynasty. However, it was only in the 1830s that the Crawcour brothers from France used a combination of mercury, silver, tin and zinc to form dental amalgam. They came to New York and began their marketing campaign to promote this new dental material. The Crawcour brothers were brilliant marketers and named their dental filling material Royal Mineral Succedaneum and their business was extremely successful.

During that time in the U.S., practicing dentists were either members of the American Society of Dental Surgeons or dental craftsmen, who were also doctors, barbers, horseshoers, homebuilders, etc. The methods for dental treatment at the time were either to extract the tooth without any medication or to place gold foil into the tooth.

When the Crawcour bothers brought this new filling material to New York, the American Society of Dental Surgeons made their members sign an oath of ethics not to use this material because of the toxic mercury content; however, the dental craftsmen found this to be such an easy and cheap way to fill teeth and realized the financial advantages of the material. This enabled the craftsmen to build their support and membership, dismantling the American Society of Dental Surgeons and forming the American Dental Association (ADA) based on the use of mercury. The ADA even had the patent on dental mercury. This was considered the first amalgam war.

The second amalgam war was very quietly lost when Professor Alfred Stock, a German scientist, who himself was mercury poisoned and wrote over 50 papers on the subject, tried unsuccessfully to encourage German dentists to abandon mercury's use in dentistry. A world away, during that same time in the 1920s, a Brazilian dentist, Dr. Olympio Domingues Pinto, and his wife, Dr. Martha Faissol Pinto, also a dentist, started to see improvement in the health of patients when mercury fillings were replaced with gold fillings.

One particular case was of a young girl diagnosed with leukemia. After a visit to Pinto, she miraculously went into remission. When mercury fillings were put back into her teeth, the girl was rediagnosed with leukemia. Pinto then removed the mercury fillings and replaced them with gold, and once again she was in remission. This prompted him to encourage his son, Olympio Faissol Pinto, to study this in the U.S. at Georgetown University while he worked on his master's degree.

During Pinto's time at Georgetown, he found several books on the subject, one by Stock, and another by Dr. Karl O. Frykholm, and both of these discussed mercury in dentistry. Pinto was seeking to answer the burning questions of his father and he wanted to do his master's thesis on mercury dental fillings. He was never able to have the laboratory time necessary to perform the research on his subject, but he never abandoned his desire to share the successes he had after replacing mercury fillings with non-mercury materials.

It was during the early 1970s that Pinto had a chance encounter with Dr. Hal Huggins, a U.S. dentist, at an international dental conference in Mexico City. It was there that Pinto told Huggins about his experiences with dental mercury and the miraculous improvements in his patients' health when mercury dental fillings were removed. Even though Huggins was extremely skeptical of the information that Pinto gave him, he kept an open mind and decided to do his own investigation. At Pinto's suggestion, Huggins performed a blood test (his primary means of testing at the time) before and after both placement and removal of amalgam fillings. The results of blood chemistry changes within three weeks were so astounding that Huggins immediately gave away all of his amalgam-placing equipment and never placed another one.

Little did Huggins dream at that time that his life would change forever. Huggins was so shocked at what he discovered about the toxicity of mercury that he began his own campaign to educate his colleagues about the dangers of mercury in dentistry. It cost him his license to practice dentistry, as he was accused of refusing to refer patients for amalgam placement. He was offered his license back but refused it. Since that time, Huggins has written numerous books on the subject. One of his first, titled "It's All in Your Head," was a catalyst for the movement, and Huggins, like Pinto, has lectured globally. After more than 40 years, Huggins, along with Pinto, whom he fondly refers to as his twin brother from a different mother, has never given up, nor given in to the enormous pressures from organized dentistry, which has persecuted both of them for decades.

This brings us to the third amalgam war, in which we are currently engaged. I have personally worked with Pinto and Huggins for over a decade, and they have told me their stories and are both my mentors. They are brilliant visionaries and pioneers in action. These men are in the category of extraordinary human beings. Although they are getting older, their passion and strength to continue to expose this issue to the world has never wavered. They are tireless and continue to push the envelope to advance the world of holistic biological dentistry.

Shortly after their meeting in Mexico City, Pinto met with a few of his forward-thinking colleagues, and started Sociedade Brasileira de Reabilitação Oral (the Brazilian Society of Oral Rehabilitation; SBRO). This organization continues to grow and none of its members use mercury dental fillings. Several years after SBRO was started, a group of Canadian and American dentists started the International Academy of Oral Medicine and Toxicology (IAOMT) in Canada.

In the early 1990s, the television show "60 Minutes" ran a segment on the dangers of mercury dental fillings. At the time, it was one of the most watched segments that the program had ever run. Also during that time, Pinto brought together experts for the first Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Rio Eco-Odonto, in 1992. It is curious to me that these events were happening in North America and South America almost simultaneously, using much of the same science to demonstrate the dangers of mercury in these two parts of the world.

During the "60 Minutes" segment, members of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the ADA, who oversaw the dental materials, were alleged to have ties with the industry. The ADA is a trade organization, like the Teamsters union, not a government agency, as some people may think. The people who regulate the dental industry are dentists, not scientists or toxicologists; therefore, objectivity on product or patient safety is skewed from the start. Most significant about the FDA's oversight is that mercury dental fillings were grandfathered in under Generally Recognized as Safe, owing to amalgam's long-term usage. To date, the FDA has not reclassified dental mercury fillings.

At that same time, the ADA was fighting against patient disclosure identifying mercury as the main ingredient of amalgam, and, more than 20 years later, they are still fighting not to disclose to the patient that mercury is the main ingredient in this dental material. I know this, as I just gave a presentation at a city council meeting in Berkeley, Calif., and the ADA and California Dental Association representatives argued that patients would be afraid if they knew the material contains mercury. Why are we still arguing? If there is nothing wrong with mercury in dental fillings, tell patients that amalgam contains mercury and let the patients decide for themselves.

The only difference between now and 20 years ago is the following: We now, after four years of negotiations, have approved a global legally binding treaty through the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), aptly called the Minamata Convention on Mercury. It was so named for the mercury poisoning that occurred owing to the mercury waste that the Chisso Corporation, a chemical plant in Minamata, Japan, was found to have been dumping into Minamata Bay. While the contamination had started in the 1930s, it was during the 1950s that people and animals in this small fishing village started to display strange symptoms. First, it was the cats, who would behave in bizarre ways and even throw themselves into the water and drown. Then, the people in the village started to develop tremors due to the mercury exposure attacking their central nervous systems. Other horrible disease symptoms appeared as well, and it was diagnosed eventually as mercury toxicity from eating the mercury-contaminated fish from the bay.

Again, it took decades and legal action to have the culpability and responsibility placed finally on the Chisso Corporation; however, the deaths of and damage done to the people of Minamata continue, more than half a century later. The environmental impact was so devastating that the government had to subsidize the local fishermen so that they would not consume the mercury-contaminated fish, halting their livelihood in the process.

I had the opportunity to attend all of the UNEP's Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) sessions. When I went to Chiba, Japan, I met a victim of the Minamata disaster. My brief encounter with a survivor of this horrific catastrophe left a profound impression on me that changed my life forever.

There were films presented on the Minamata tragedy and the many important lessons that the people of Japan implored the world to learn. The most important one was not to repeat what happened in Minamata, by stopping the use of mercury!

During these UNEP negotiations, the IAOMT had an enormous presence and a powerful impact in disseminating the most relevant and current information on mercury in dentistry. The IAOMT provided the delegates with scientific materials and actively engaged in submitting texts through various interventions by the stakeholders.

It was during the fourth session of the INC that members of the IAOMT realized the necessity of developing a project that would help developing countries; countries in transition and countries with emerging economies convert to mercury-free dental materials. This was where the Technical Assistance Programme (TAP) was born. The TAP not only provides educational information on how to use non-mercury filling materials effectively, but also educates dental professionals on the safe removal of mercury fillings by protecting the patient, dental staff, and the dentist, as well as how to handle mercury waste.

The UNEP has applauded the IAOMT's commitment to this work. The IAOMT is launching the TAP in Rio de Janeiro this month with an international workshop presented by Dr. Blanche Grube from the USA and Dr. David Warwick from Canada. The Associação Brasileira de Odontologia (Brazilian Association of Odontology) will be hosting this two-day event. The significance of this project cannot be overlooked, as Brazil has almost 200 dental schools and almost 10,000 dentists graduate annually.

After representatives from the IAOMT met with congresswoman Dr. Aspásia Camargo from Rio de Janeiro in early July, Camargo immediately took action and vowed to have a hearing on the dangers of mercury. On Aug. 9, she not only had a public hearing, but she also proposed a law that would effectively ban products and processes that contain mercury in the State of Rio de Janeiro. She felt compelled to take action prior to the treaty signing because of the urgency and dangers that mercury poses not just to humans but to the environment as well.

A mercury-free dental zone in one of the most important cities in the world will make it a model city that can be replicated around the globe. I personally participated in this pilot project in Rio de Janeiro and I find it most fitting that the long history of Olympio Faissol Pinto's efforts to ban mercury in dentistry will come to fruition in his city, the first in Latin America to follow the actions of the countries of Norway, Denmark and Sweden, who have already banned this toxic material, along with many other countries that are significantly limiting the use of mercury in dental fillings.

Many, many people around the world have worked tirelessly for a ban on mercury in dental fillings. I would like to mention a few of the leading scientists and doctors whose pioneering works in the third amalgam war have moved this issue forward: Dr. Mats Hanson, Dr. Lars Friberg, Dr. Boyd Haley, Dr. Mats Berlin, Dr. Fritz Lorscheider, Dr. Vasken Aposhian, Dr. Murray Vimy, Dr. David Kennedy, Sam Ziff, Dr. Mike Ziff, Dr. Mark Geier, David Geier, Leo Cashman and many, many others, on whom more information can be found using a simple Google search.

There are many global activists and victims of mercury poisoning whose contributions to the movement would never have gained any traction at all had it not been for their personal sacrifices and tremendous dedication to educating, working at the grassroots to organize and change public policy. I salute them all and will continue to do my part to achieve the goal of a mercury-free world.

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