“Aren’t those silver fillings you put in people’s mouths poisonous?” Patients ask me questions like this weekly. They think they might be victims of an unsafe filling material, but they are instead victims of self-serving fear mongers. There is so much misinformation about health issues in the news media, it is no wonder many patients are confused. It seems like the purpose of reporters is to scare us to death with sensationalism, rather than to inform us.
Silver amalgam fillings were placed by the Chinese as early as 1400AD, and in Western countries since the early 1800s. This material has saved countless of millions of teeth from extraction. Silver amalgam is economical, easy to place, and durable. Current formulations are about 59% of a mixture of silver, copper, and tin, and 42% mercury.
“Mercury! Isn’t mercury a poison?” This is always patients’ next question.
Yes, if you ingest elemental mercury or sufficient amounts of methyl mercury, it is. Many common everyday items contain amounts of dangerous elements, bound together in stable molecules. Elemental chlorine gas is lethal if inhaled. Bound together with sodium, it is the table salt you ingest in food every day.
It is true, silver amalgam contains mercury, but it is bound together in a stable alloy that poses no health risk. Silver fillings have been the subject of countless scientific investigations. Although it is true that trace amounts of mercury are released in heavy chewing, the amounts are inconsequential and have not been found to pose a health hazard. Eating fish, especially tuna, releases more mercury in your body than do silver fillings.
The most elemental mercury is released from silver fillings during their placement and during their removal from teeth. Now think about this: my assistant and I remove old silver fillings and place new ones in teeth during much of our workday. If silver fillings are so dangerous, don’t you think dentists and their assistants would be the people who were very ill?
Now why on earth would people try to scare you into thinking fillings in your mouth are poisoning you? There are two reasons- publicity and money. Please examine people’s motives before you believe what they say.
If one researcher concluded that drinking tap water was a dangerous health risk, it might make headlines on the news. If ten researchers concluded that drinking tap water was safe, do you think you would hear about it? No- It wouldn’t be news, because it would not be contrary to what anyone believes. It wouldn’t scare anyone, nor generate any publicity! For a researcher, claiming silver fillings cause a variety of serious illnesses is a sure way to be an instant celebrity. It also gains publicity for his university employer, which increases the researcher’s chance of promotion.
Likewise, if a dentist tells you that your silver fillings are safe and should stay in your mouth, he will earn no money from you. However, if a dentist acts unethically and claims your silver fillings are toxic hazards and should be replaced, he stands to make money from replacing them with more expensive types of fillings. Think about it! Where is the motivation?
Now that we have gone over all the reasons why amalgams are safe, why should you consider using them in your mouth, instead of types of fillings?
- Amalgams are cost-effective. They have the lowest cost per year of useful life of any filling material.
- They are easy for the dentist to place, even when there is moisture.
- It is relatively easy to get a good contact between a silver filling and an adjacent tooth. Inadequate contacts can cause food impaction and gum disease.
- Post-op sensitivity is usually minimal and short-lived.
- Silver fillings actually seal better with increased time.
- They are more decay-resistant than resin-based or resin-cemented fillings.
- Silver fillings can be repaired or added to.
- The amalgam material is not so hard that it wears the opposing natural teeth.
Silver amalgam fillings remain the most durable filling material for back teeth after gold. Gold fillings are wonderful, but are more complicated to do, and cost several times as much as silver amalgams. Science has made great improvements in white resin fillings, but such fillings still do not last nearly so long in back teeth. It is not rare for silver fillings to last 30 years, and it is possible for them to last 60. There is no reason why you should have silver fillings replaced for health reasons.
Dr. Kim Henry
May 3, 2002