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EPA Sued for Mercury Policy

epa lawsuit

Story at-a-glance -

  • In December 2016, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finalized a rule that would restrict dentists' mercury discharges by requiring them to install amalgam separators
  • With the changes in administration, that rule has been rolled back, and the EPA is facing a lawsuit because of it
  • The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) states the EPA rescinded the rule illegally, as it cannot be done without public notice or a comment period

By Dr. Mercola

Many people are not aware that, in the U.S., dental offices are the single largest source of mercury at sewage treatment plants.1

When dentists discharge mercury from amalgam fillings (also known, misleadingly, as “silver” fillings) down the drains in their offices, it accumulates in the environment, including in seafood intended for human consumption.

As a neurotoxin, mercury in the environment is dangerous for everyone, but poses a particularly grave risk for pregnant women, babies and children, in whom it can seriously disrupt brain function and harm the nervous system.

There was a ray of hope, however, when, in December 2016, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finalized a rule that would restrict dentists' mercury discharges.

After more than a decade of debating the issue and an additional five years of delays, the EPA finally finalized requirements for dentists placing or removing amalgam to install amalgam separators to reduce their mercury discharge.

Now, with the changes in administration, that rule has been rolled back, and the EPA is facing a lawsuit because of it. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), which filed the suit, this can’t legally be done without public notice or a comment period. NRDC’s litigation director, Aaron Colangelo, said in a statement:2

“The Trump White House ordered the EPA and other agencies to violate the law … That puts Americans at greater risk of exposure to this dangerous neurotoxin, which can do harm even in tiny amounts.

… EPA’s withdrawal of the mercury rule is not just illegal, but senseless. The rule imposes minimal burden, drew widespread praise from dental providers and benefits public health and the environment.”

Rule Would Reduce Mercury Discharges by 5.1 Tons a Year

There are 130,000 dental offices in the U.S., about 103,000 of which still use or remove amalgam fillings.3

Together, these dentists discharge about 5.1 tons of mercury each year to publically owned water treatment plants and, according to the EPA, “most of this mercury is subsequently released to the environment.” They explained:4

“Mercury-containing amalgam wastes may find their way into the environment when new fillings are placed or old mercury-containing fillings are drilled out and waste amalgam materials that are flushed into chair-side drains enter the wastewater stream.

Mercury entering POTWs [publically owned treatment works] frequently partitions into the sludge, the solid material that remains after wastewater is treated.

Mercury from waste amalgam therefore can make its way into the environment from the POTW through the incineration, landfilling or land application of sludge or through surface water discharge.”

While most dental offices use at least a basic filtration system to help cut down on mercury waste entering the sewer system, the rule, known as the Mercury Effluent Rule, would require dental offices to install amalgam separators that capture the mercury (and other metals) before they’re discharged into the sewer. The mercury can then be recycled.

Under the rule, existing dental offices would have to install amalgam separators within three years, which was expected to reduce mercury discharge by 5.1 tons and discharge of other metals found in waste dental amalgams by 5.3 tons, annually.5

Installing the equipment was estimated to cost only about $800 per office.6 In a rare show of agreement, all stakeholders were in favor of the rule, even the American Dental Association (ADA).7

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NRDC States the EPA Illegally Rescinded the Rule

The EPA’s mercury rule was part of a number of public health and environmental protection rules that the White House ordered to be withdrawn early this year. The NRDC’s lawsuit against the EPA states that the agency acted illegally by withdrawing the rule without public notice or a public comment period.

According to NRDC, “EPA cannot withdraw the mercury protection rule based on the Trump administration’s fiat because the rule is final.”8 The best solution would be to eliminate mercury from dentistry altogether, but until this happens, separators would at least lessen the environmental burden.

About 40 percent of U.S. dental offices have already installed the devices, because 12 states have mandatory rules in place to stop mercury from being discharged into wastewater treatment plants.9

The current nominee to head the EPA, Scott Pruitt, may not help matters, however, considering he’s sued the agency in the past to block a rule to limit how much mercury could be emitted into the air by coal plants.10

It Will Take More Than Amalgam Separators to Stop Mercury Pollution

The installation of amalgam separators at every dental office using amalgam should be a given, but even that will not go far enough to stop the environmental destruction that results from the continued use of this toxic metal in dentistry.

Dental mercury pollution enters the water via human waste disposal and dental clinic releases. It enters the land via landfills, human burials and fertilizer. And it enters the air from dental clinic emissions and waste incineration.

Seven to 9 metric tons of mercury per year escape into the atmosphere during cremations alone, and it is estimated that, left unchecked, crematoria will be the largest single cause of mercury pollution by 2020.

European Union Bans Amalgam Fillings for Children and Pregnant or Nursing Women

While the U.S. EPA has halted even a minimal step to curb mercury pollution from amalgam fillings, the European Union has declared that, starting July 1, 2018, amalgam use will be banned for children under 15 and pregnant or nursing women.

"The next generation of Europe's children are safe from toxic dental mercury," Charlie Brown, president of Consumers for Dental Choice and the umbrella organization World Alliance for Mercury-Free Dentistry, said. He continued:

"This landmark achievement still has to be officially ratified, but all three European Union institutions, the [European] commission, the Council [of the European Union] and the European Parliament have reached consensus.

The ban on amalgam for children in Europe, we promise you, will reverberate in favor of the children across the world — in America North and South, in Africa and in Asia and the Pacific.

The game changer that will do in amalgam is the Minamata Convention on Mercury, which requires every participating nation to act to reduce amalgam use. The Convention is expected to become legally binding in the middle of 2017."

Seeing the EU decision as a springboard, Consumers for Dental Choice and the World Alliance for Mercury-Free Dentistry have launched a campaign to ban mercury amalgam for every child everywhere.

"We target 2020 as victory year for the world's children," said Brown. "This victory for Europe's children will lead us to for the children of Asia, Africa and America North and South. Amalgam belongs only in museums that feature failed medical strategies."

Amalgam Is Inferior to Today’s Modern Filling Alternatives

In a press release, British dentist Graeme Munro-Hall, chair of the Transition and Training task force for the World Alliance for Mercury-Free Dentistry, described amalgam as “a primitive polluting device” that’s “technically inferior to today’s modern alternatives.”11

One of the most popular alternatives to amalgam is resin composite, which is made of a type of plastic reinforced with powdered glass. It is already common throughout the United States and the rest of the developed world, offering notable improvements over amalgam as it, according to Consumers for Dental Choice:12

Is environmentally safe: Composite, which contains no mercury, does not pollute the environment. This saves taxpayers from paying the costs of cleaning up dental mercury pollution in our water, air and land — and the costs of health problems associated with mercury pollution.

Preserves healthy tooth structure because, unlike amalgam, it does not require the removal of significant amounts of healthy tooth matter. Over the long term, composite preserves healthy tooth structure and actually strengthens teeth, leading to better oral health and less extensive dental work over the long term.

Is long-lasting: While some claim that amalgam fillings last longer than composite fillings, the science reveals this claim to be baseless. The latest studies show that composite not only lasts as long as amalgam, but actually has a higher overall survival rate.

A lesser-known alternative is increasingly making mercury-free dentistry possible even in the rural areas of developing countries. Atraumatic restorative treatment (also called alternative restorative treatment or ART) is a mercury-free restorative technique that has been demonstrated a success in a diverse array of countries around the world, including Tanzania, India, Brazil, Zimbabwe, Turkey, Peru and more.

ART relies on adhesive materials for the filling (instead of mercury) and uses only hand instruments to place the filling, making it particularly well-suited for rural areas of developing countries.

Important Information About Amalgam Removal

For those of you who have mercury fillings, I recommend having them very carefully removed by a competent biological dentist who follows professional protocols for amalgam removal. It's very important to have it done correctly. When amalgams are removed, a large amount of mercury is released, and if the proper precautions aren't taken, your body can absorb a massive dose of mercury that can lead to acute kidney problems.

I experienced this myself more than 20 years ago when I had my amalgams removed by a non-biological dentist. Biological dentists, on the other hand, are well aware of these dangers. Some of the steps that need to be taken to keep you and your dentist safe during amalgam removal include:

Providing you with an alternative air source and instructing you not to breathe through your mouth

Putting a rubber dam in your mouth so you don't swallow or inhale any toxins, and using a high-volume evacuator near the tooth at all times to evacuate the mercury vapor

Using a cold-water spray to minimize mercury vapors

Washing your mouth out immediately after the fillings have been removed (the dentist should also change gloves after the removal)

Immediately cleaning your protective wear and face once the fillings are removed

Using room air purifiers

If your dentist claims you need to get a new filling, talk to him about the available alternatives to amalgam, and be aware that many dental insurance companies still refuse to completely pay for composite fillings. Some, for instance, will only cover composite fillings on your front teeth while others refuse to pay at all. As a result, people who have dental insurance are actually more likely to get amalgam than those paying out-of-pocket.13

Demand Your Choice

Today, about 50 percent of American dentists offer mercury-free dentistry, up from 3 percent 20 years ago. To accelerate change in the U.S., Consumers for Dental Choice is urging all American consumers to demand mercury-free dentistry — both from your dentist and from your insurance company. If they refuse, switch dentists; switch insurance.

At present, many insurance companies, including Delta Dental, Aetna, Equitable and Humana typically will pay only for amalgam in your molars, even though composite, not amalgam, has become the standard and mainstream filling material in North America.

And, since mercury-free dentists — again, about half of all dentists in the U.S. — will not give you an amalgam filling anywhere in your mouth, the insurance company profits handsomely since you then have to pay the bill out-of-pocket even though you're insured. As previously noted by Brown:

"They sell an artificially low-price policy to get you in. That's a bait-and-switch. It's time to hold all of them accountable … Challenge your insurance company, demand your claim be paid and work with your mercury-free dentist to do that. We have the paperwork if you push the 'Demand Your Choice' button … We can change this from the grassroots up. We're not going to wait on the FDA … We're going to simply change the market."

Demand Mercury-Free Dental Fillings

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