Connecticut Set to Make Critical Mercury Ruling

Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Gina McCarthy has decided to review the law to determine for herself whether mercury amalgams are included in the ban. If the commissioner decides that the law does ban amalgam, Connecticut would be the first state in the country to do so.

Connecticut may become the first state in the nation to prohibit dentists from placing new amalgam fillings in the mouths of their patients. These so-called “silver” fillings are 50 percent mercury, a deadly neurotoxin. While mercury has been used in fillings for decades, some dentists now only use a white, nontoxic substitute, citing a growing body of evidence that mercury in fillings may relate to a wide range of health problems.

The American Dental Association and Connecticut Dental Association continue to insist that the mercury fillings are safe. However, the federal Environmental Protection Agency says that a single extracted tooth containing a mercury filling must be treated and disposed of as hazardous waste.

Because mercury is so hazardous in the environment, the Connecticut legislature passed a law to ban the sale of products containing mercury. Mercury thermometers were banned, for example. All other products containing mercury either were immediately banned or were ordered phased out in a specific timetable contained in the law. A handful of products, like some theatrical lighting, were listed as exempt. Mercury amalgam was not listed as exempt, and dentists continue to use it, despite the ban.

Health advocates and consumer advocates immediately began urging the state Department of Environmental Protection to enforce the ban on mercury fillings. The ADA and CDA argued that the law doesn’t apply to mercury fillings.

This spring, DEP Commissioner Gina McCarthy surprised many when she decided to review the law to determine for herself whether mercury amalgams are included in the ban. She announced that she would rule by mid-October 2005. If the commissioner decides that the law does ban amalgam, Connecticut would be the first state in the country to do so, and would likely spur similar rulings in other states. The commissioner heard arguments from both sides at hearing in May.

Mercury Retrograde

The state law bans the sale of any mercury products in Connecticut containing more than 250 parts per million of mercury after July 2004. Mercury amalgam contain 500,000 parts per million. A now-banned mercury thermometer contains about the same amount of mercury as a single mercury amalgam.

“The issue is clear: the law bans mercury amalgam because it is a product that exceeds the stated limit of mercury,” said Charles Brown, National Counsel for Consumers for Dental Choice, a national advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C.

“The law clearly provides for a handful of identifiable exemptions and mercury amalgam is not one of them,” Brown said. “The state and national dental associations would like to continue to keep consumers in the dark, but the truth is out and people are no longer going accept this dangerous toxin in their bodies or in their environment.”

“What is crucial to understand here is that amalgams are significant contributors to the mercury being released into our environment,” said Betty McLaughlin, Director of Environmental Affairs for Connecticut Audubon Society. “Many don’t realize that through human excretion, cremation, and even poor dental office drainage, our waterways, our air, and the soil around us are being contaminated with this poisonous material. Connecticut has made landmark progress by passing this law, but success will come from enforcing it properly.”

Mercury can cause serious health problems in the brain, spinal cord, kidneys and the liver. Mercury in unborn children can cause mental retardation and other birth defects. Young children may face decreased brain size, delay of physical development, and impairment of mental capacities, abnormal muscle tone, and coordination problems. In adults, exposure to mercury can result in abnormal sensations in hands and feet, tiredness, or blurred vision.

“The American Dental Association continues to tell the public, dentists and physicians that mercury is no longer mercury when placed in a filling; this is criminal. I have not placed a mercury filling in almost 30 years. There are other materials to use that are not toxic like mercury,” said Dr. Mark Breiner, a mercury-free dentist in Trumbull, Conn.

And Dr. Breiner is not alone. Currently, the number of mercury-free dentists has increased from 3% in 1985 to 28% in 2001 to more than a third today. However, the majority of dentists still use this dangerous toxin in their everyday practice — 34 tons of mercury annually and much of that eventually ends up in the environment. The coming months will reveal if the State of Connecticut will begin a trend to halt this pollution.

Danielle F. Rodriguez became interested in the problem of mercury pollution while working with Consumers for Dental Choice, Washington, D.C., a nonprofit consumer advocacy organization. Additional information is available at