Mercury in household paints has been deemed harmful and declared illegal, yet many of us have potentially dangerous amounts of mercury even closer to home.

We all know the mad hatter, legendary host of the bizarre and dreamy tea party found in Alice in Wonderland, but what we may not know is that the Mad Hatter's strange antics d some basis in reality. Historically, hat makers suffered a higher risk of insanity because of the mercury compounds once used in their industry--hence the true origin of the phrase "mad as a hatter."

Unfortunately, the hatters' fate did not influence the use of mercury in other industries. Today, mercury is used by the plastics industry, the agricultural business, and the chlorine-alkali industry. In addition, a wealth of commercial products contain mercury, including electrical equipment, pesticides, preservatives, cosmetics, and paints.[ 1] In 1990, after a four-year-old Michigan boy fell desperately ill from a rare form of mercury poisoning only 10 days after his home was painted, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) launched an investigation and consequently banned mercury use for interior latex paints.[ 2]

Another potential source of exposure to mercury lies even closer to home. The so-called "silver" fillings that most dentists use to fill cavities in our mouths and in the mouths of our children are comprised of 35 percent silver, 15 percent tin (or tin and copper), and 50 percent mercury.[ 3]


According to the American Dental ASsociation (ADA), mercury amalgam is a durable and safe substance that has been used in dentistry without deleterious side effects for more than 150 years.[ 4] In January 1993, the United States Public Health Services issued a report asserting that "scant" scientific evidence exists linking the mercury in dental amalgam to any disease.[ 5]

Apparently, the difference between the mercury used in industry and paints and the mercury used in dental amalgam lies in the dose. Health risks from mercury vapor inhalation usually begin when urine concentrations reach between 25 and 100 micrograms of mercury per gram of creatine; the urine of individuals with extensive amalgam has not been shown to rise above the four microgram level.[ 6] Therefore, even though mercury is a known poison, the ADA argues that the exposure from dental amalgam is too minute to constitute a health risk.

The ADA, along with the National Institute of Dental Research, concedes that a small group of individuals may be hypersensitive or allergic to mercury. For these rare individuals, they advise against mercury amalgam.[ 7] For the general population, however, the ADA maintains that it is "improper and unethical" for dentists to suggest or recommend amalgam removal.[ 8]


The dental association in Sweden, however, is telling a different story. Swedish dental authorities have publicly admitted that mercury amalgam is an unsafe substance. Sweden eliminated the use of mercury amalgam on children and adolescents as of July 1, 1995; a ban for adults is projected for 1997.[ 9] Austria has initiated a similar ban, effective by the year 2000.[ 10] And one manufacturer of mercury amalgam in Germany--Degussa--has terminated its production of mercury amalgam altogether.[ 11]

These countries based their decisions in part upon scientific research that demonstrates the mercury in dental amalgam is not an inert substance. Studies show that mercury vapor is released from fillings and accumulates in bodily tissues. University of Iowa researchers, for instance, demonstrated in the late seventies that chewing increases the levels of mercury vapor in the breath of individuals with mercury amalgams. They also found that corroded fillings release even more mercury vapor.[ 12] Other studies have shown that brushing filled teeth also increases the level of mercury vapor in expired air.[ 13]

When exposed to mercury, individuals inhale and absorb as much as 80 percent of the vapors.[ 14] Autopsy studies have found accumulations of mercury in various bodily tissues and organs, including the lungs, kidneys, liver, and brain.[ 15] They have further shown that there is a direct correlation between the number of amalgam surfaces and the brain mercury level. In one study, individuals with five to 14.5 amalgam surfaces had between two and three times more mercury in their brain matter than individuals with zero to 1.5 surfaces.[ 16]

While these studies do not link dental fillings to any specific disease, they do show that the placement of fillings significantly increases the total body burden of mercury.

Furthermore, numerous anecdotal cases do exist of individuals who have overcome serious health problems, including multiple sclerosis, after the removal of their mercury amalgams. The range of reported amalgam-related problems is broad, including headaches and dizziness, gastrointestinal problems, and neurological concerns.[ 17] Unfortunately, the ADA maintains that anecdotal cases do not constitute scientific evidence against the continued use of mercury in fillings.
Mercury amalgam has also been linked to a phenomenon called electrogalvanism, the electrical current generated when metallic fillings react with saliva. Individuals who pick up radio stations through their fillings are witnessing electrogalvanism. However, electrogalvanism has been linked to more serious health concerns, including lack of concentration and memory, insomnia, psychological problems, tinnitus, vertigo, epilepsy, hearing loss, eye problems, and intractable pain syndromes.[ 18]


It has long been known that chronic exposure to mercury vapor on job sites leads to a plethora of female and infant health concerns. Chronic mercury poisoning has been linked to an increased incidence of menstrual disturbances, spontaneous abortions, and infant mortality.[ 19] As early as the mid-eighties, anti-amalgam experts Dr. Michael Ziff and Sam Ziff posited that mercury vapor exposure from dental amalgam could be a hidden cause of infertility and birth defects.[ 20] Now recent studies directly link the mercury burden of fetuses and young children to the mercury amalgam in their mothers.

In 1994 German researchers reported their examinations of 46 aborted fetuses and 108 young children under five years of age who had died suddenly. They confirmed that mercury had accumulated in the liver, kidney, and brain tissues of these children. The degree of accumulation was linked to the number of mercury amalgams in their mothers. Fetuses of mothers with more than 10 teeth with fillings were found to have higher liver and kidney mercury concentrations than fetuses of mothers with less than two fillings.[ 21]

Such concentrations are possible because mercury, like other toxic substances and drugs, can cross the placental barrier to the unborn fetus. University of Calgary researchers reported in 1990 that, based upon their experiments with sheep, mercury appeared in fetal blood within two days of amalgam placement in the mothers. Their study found the greatest concentration of mercury in fetal livers and pituitary glands.[ 22]

Mercury from amalgam was also found in breast milk, providing another potential exposure for infants.[ 23] Because an infant's immune system is much more fragile than an adult's, any exposure to toxins potentially carries a greater risk of harmful side effects.


Anti-amalgam sources agree that you should avoid all new dental work during your entire pregnancy. This includes-teeth cleaning and polishing. Unfortunately, what pregnant women should do about the mercury amalgam currently in their mouths is a hotly debated issue.

Some sources are firmly against removing amalgam during pregnancy. They believe that the mercury released during the removal of the amalgam poses a greater health risk to the unborn child because it temporarily, but significantly, increases mercury concentration levels. Instead, they advocate eating a diet rich in sulfur-containing foods that protect against mercury exposure, limiting the amount of fish and seafood in your diet, and deciding upon a protective vitamin and mineral supplement program with the help of a knowledgeable healthcare practitioner.[ 24]

Others believe that the best course of action is to remove the mercury amalgam during pregnancy. They argue that the unborn fetus will be exposed to a continuous source of mercury through blood and milk supplies if the amalgams are not removed.[ 25]

Should you decide to remove your mercury-containing amalgams, proceed with caution. Research the issue and find qualified professionals in your area to assist you with your decision. Because you are exposed to fairly high concentrations of mercury during the removal of fillings, you should not rush to remove them all at once--or be sure to have them removed by a dentist who is familiar with protocol to protect you from mercury vapor exposure during removal.


With the growing concern about mercury amalgam, you may seriously wish to consider alternatives for your own and your children's future dental work. Three major alternatives currently exist: gold, porcelain, and composites.
Gold was used in dentistry long before the advent of amalgam 150 years ago. Gold is an inert, durable, and long-lasting substance. However, gold is also very expensive and not aesthetically pleasing. Furthermore, gold fillings and crowns, like "silver" fillings, are generally not 100 percent gold. Instead, the gold is combined with other metals, some precious and others nonprecious, to form an alloy. You may wish to question your dentist about the alloys he or she uses.
One final word of caution concerning gold dental materials: All anti-amalgam sources agree that gold dental work should not be used in conjunction with existing amalgam or other metallic dental appliances such as partial dentures. Dissimilar metals may increase the potential for electrogalvanism.

Once considered too brittle for posterior teeth, porcelain has been improved and is now a viable alternative to amalgam. Although the exact composition of each type of porcelain varies, it is generally composed of feldspar (potassium aluminum silicate), silica (quartz or flint), and kaolin (clay). Porcelain is stable, aesthetically pleasing, and currently considered inert, which means that chemicals are not released after it is placed. Unfortunately, porcelain is quite expensive because it is technique-sensitive, and even smaller fillings must be preformed at a laboratory before placement.

Composite materials, usually made from plastic resins and quartz along with various fillers, were once considered only appropriate for front teeth. New placement techniques now make them viable choices for posterior teeth as well. They are aesthetically pleasing and considerably more affordable than porcelain. However, even the best placement techniques will not make a composite filling last as long as either gold or porcelain.

Composite fillings are not completely inert, which means that they release small amounts of chemicals as they wear. Each brand of composite utilizes different filler materials, so the type of chemicals released varies. Again, you may wish to question your dentist about the materials used in his or her composite. Filler substances that may be undesirable include fluoride and aluminum.

Finding a dentist who is thoroughly familiar with alternative dental materials, including the technique-sensitive porcelain and composite, may not be easy. Only an estimated 3,000 of the 150,000 dentists in the United States practice mercury-free dentistry, but others may provide alternative fillings if you request them.[ 26] The organizations below all provide referral services for mercury-free dentistry.

In the end, it is important to realize that no perfect dental material exists. All fillings are foreign substances and therefore have the potential to cause reactions. The best possible course of action is to practice and teach good dental hygiene in order to minimize cavities. For those cavities that do occur, make as informed a decision as possible about the dental material used.


1. Patrick Stortebecker, MD, PhD, Mercury Poisoning from Dental Amalgam--A Hazard to the Human Brain (Orlando, FL: Bio Probe, 1986), p. 11.

2. "Banned in Paint, Why Not in Fillings?" Consumer Reports (May 1991): 317.

3. "Drilling for Danger? A Debate Over the Safety of 'Silver' Fillings," Newsweek (15 October 1990): 80.
4. "What About Mercury in Your Dental Fillings?" Consumers Research (July 1993): 23.

5. "PHS Reports on Dental Amalgam," FDA Consumer 27, no. 3 (April 1993): 4.

6. "The Mercury in Your Mouth," Consumer Reports (May 1991): 318.
7. See Note 4, p. 24.

8. Sam Ziff, The Toxic Time Bomb (Santa Fe, NM: Aurora Press, 1994), p. 204.
9. See Note 8, p. 205.

10. Mary Mussel, "Metal Heads," City Pages: The Alternative News and Arts Weekly of the Twin Cities (30 November 1994): 13.
11. Ibid.

12. C. W. Svare et al., "The Effect of Dental Amalgams on Mercury Levels in Expired Air," Journal of Dental Research 60 (1981): 1668-1671.

13. J. E. Patterson; B. G. Weissberg, and P. J. Dennison, "Mercury in Human Breath from Dental Amalgams," Bulletin of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology 34 (1985): 459-468.
14. Sam Ziff and Michael Ziff, DDS, Infertility and Birth Defects: Is Mercury from Silver Dental Fillings an Unsuspected Cause? (Orlando, FL: Bio Probe, 1987), p. 102.

15. N. K. Mottet and R. L. Body, "Mercury Burden of Human Autopsy Organs and Tissues," Archives of Environmental Health 29 (1974): 18-24.

16. David Eggleston and Magnus Nylander, "Correlation of Dental Amalgam with Mercury in Brain Tissue," Journal of Prosthetic Dentistry 58 (1987).

17. See Note 8, pp. 217-218.

18. "Biological Dentistry," Alternative Medicine: The Definitive Guide (Puyallup, WA: Future Medicine Publishing, 1994), p. 89.

19. Environmental Protection Agency, Mercury Health Effects Update Health Issue Assessment. Final Report (1984), EPA-600/8-84-019F.
20. See Note 14, chapters 7, 8, and 9.

21. G. Drasch et al., "Mercury Burden of Human Fetal and Infant Tissues," European Journal of Pediatrics 153 (1994): 607-610.

22. M. J. Vimy, Y. Takahashi, and F. L. Lorscheider, "Maternal-Fetal Distribution of Mercury Released from Dental Amalgam Fillings" American Journal of Physiology 258 (1990): R939-R945.
23. Ibid.

24. Sam Ziff, Michael Ziff, DDS, and Mats Hanson, PhD, Dental Mercury Detox (Orlando: Bio Probe, 1993): 24.
25. See Note 24, p. 23.

26. Tom Monte, "Fear and Loathing in the Dentist's Chair," Natural Health (July/August 1992):67.

Taylor, Joyal, DDS. The Complete Guide to Mercury Toxicity from Dental Fillings. San Diego, CA: Scripps Publishing, 1988.

Ziff, Sam. The Toxic Time Bomb. Santa Fe, NM: Aurora Press, 1994.

Dental Amalgam Mercury Syndrome (DAMS)

6025 Osuna Boulevard NE, Suite B Albuquerque, NM 87109-2523 505-888-0111
Environmental Dental Association 9974 Scripps Ranch Boulevard, Suite 36
San Diego, CA 92131 1-800-388-8124 / 619-586-1208

Foundation for Toxic Free Dentistry PO Box 608010 Orlando, FL 32860-8010
For more information on dental issues, please see the following articles in past issues of Mothering: "Fillings, Mercury, and You," no. 33, p. 32; "Quest for the Healthy Tooth," no. 33, p. 29; "Tooth Decay in Children," no. 19, p. 32; "Breastfeeding and Dental Caries," no. 41, p. 29; and "Fillings, Mercury, and You," no. 44, p. 42.


NAOMI CAROL recently completed her master's degree in English literature. For 12 years she suffered from an intractable pain syndrome that responded to neither allopathic nor alternative treatments. After successfully removing her mercury, amalgam, she found answers to previously unexplainable symptoms. She is now a freelance writer specializing in alternative health.

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