Mercury Fillings Revisited
With little fanfare, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration earlier this week acknowledged on its Web site that mercury amalgam fillings -- the silvery material used for decades to plug cavities -- could be harmful.
This admission, which came after the FDA settled a lawsuit with several consumer advocacy groups, is huge, coming after years of official waffling. The agency has opened a period during which experts are invited to submit their comments. That period ends July 28; the agency is required by the terms of the legal settlement to issue a new rule regarding amalgam fillings in July 2009.
Amalgam is a blend of mercury, silver and other metals; when they bond together, the mercury is said to be rendered stable and unlikely to leach into your system. But lots of people beg to differ, saying the mercury not only is absorbed by the body but may cause neurological problems. Some believe mercury fillings trigger such disorders as multiple sclerosis, though research hasn't borne that out.
I'm a sucker for science, and when a scientist explains to me how mercury is made stable, I tend to believe what I'm hearing. On the other hand, I've often wondered: Does this mouthful of metal I've had since I was a cavity-ridden kid have anything to do with my own case of MS? Nobody knows for sure.
But the FDA's renewed consideration (technically, the agency has just reopened comment on a rule it proposed in 2002 regarding classification of amalgam fillings), at least, and at last, opens the door to more research and better understanding of mercury fillings.
We shouldn't be eager to dismiss amalgam too quickly, either. It's cheaper and more durable than other, composite filling materials. Some argue that if it were barred from use, lots of kids' cavities would go unfilled, particularly those in low-income families. And while nobody knows exactly now many people have had mercury fillings, the number is high -- and it appears that most haven't been harmed by them. For a thorough account of the controversy from a pro-amalgam point of view, check out what the Web site QuackWatch has to say.
For its part, the American Dental Association is sticking by amalgam fillings. In a statement issued yesterday, the ADA said:
"The American Dental Association (ADA) believes the recent settlement between the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the group Moms Against Mercury simply sets a definite deadline (July 28, 2009) for the FDA to complete what it began in 2002 -- a reclassification process for dental amalgam, a commonly-used cavity filling material. As far as the ADA is aware, the FDA has in no way changed its approach to, or position on, dental amalgam.
Contrary to some assertions, the FDA's current reclassification proposal does not call for restrictions on the use of amalgam in any particular population group. It merely restates FDA's ongoing call for public comments on that issue, as well as the findings of the most current scientific studies on amalgam.
Neither the FDA nor the ADA recommends that people with mercury amalgam fillings have them removed. But I'm betting a lot of people will, anyway -- if they can find a sympathetic dentist, that is.
Do you have amalgam fillings? Are you worried about them?
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