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Mar 312008

By John DeFore

As if people needed another reason to put off going to the dentist: A new report published this month by Environmental Science & Technology suggests that dental clinics may be responsible for some of the toxic mercury in waterways.

Amalgam fillings made with mercury are among the most common type of dental filling. While it’s widely believed that mercury in this form isn’t harmful, new research suggests that, somewhere between the dentist’s chair and the waste water downstream, mercury is being methylated, transforming it into “a potent, ingestible neurotoxin.”

Karl Rockne, associate professor of environmental engineering at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who co-authored the study, analyzed environmental water samples and says that the methylated mercury “appears to be produced partially, if not fully in the waste water, and it’s being produced very rapidly.” The team believes this is the result of a form of sulfur-reducing bacteria capable of methylating mercury, although they can’t say yet whether some amount of transformation might be happening even before the mercury enters wastewater pipes — in dental patients’ mouths.

Either way, Rockne says, “we have to take more steps to prevent the problem from occurring in the first place. We’re dealing with a pipe — a control point. As an engineer, I see this as a problem that is tractable — something we can definitely do something about.”

As the situation stands, the researchers believe that “up to 11 pounds of methyl mercury could be entering the public water supply of the United States each year from dental waste water” — a worrisome quantity, given that the substance “is highly toxic in minute amounts.”

If that’s not a valid excuse to delay that next root canal, it’s certainly another reason to pay attention to efforts by groups like the League of Conservation Voters to support the Clean Water Restoration Act.

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