Saving the earth, one question at a time

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Q: Are there any safe alternatives to amalgam fillings?

A: The ache. As soon as it strikes, you know you have to pay the dentist a visit, but what then? We’ve come to realize that that shiny silver goop they’ve been spackling our mouths with whenever we have a cavity isn’t so benign. The dental community maintains there’s nothing wrong with a little mercury in the mouth. But many critics insist that amalgam fillings, which are 50 per cent mercury by weight, release toxic vapours as we chew. (The state of Maine has even legislated that dentists must hand out flyers telling patients as much.) They say dentists shouldn’t be using the stuff any more.

Many do, of course. And with each amalgam filling, a little more mercury goes into the water system. The Ontario Dental Association says dentists typically contribute 8 to 14 per cent of all the mercury in our sewer system. Drain traps have been used in dentists’ offices to capture that waste for a while now, but older models caught less then half of the toxic metal.

And any mercury tossed in with regular medical waste is incinerated, sending the heavy metal into the air, where it then showers down on us and ends up in bodies of water. Jeez, no wonder we can’t eat tuna any more.

Luckily, starting in 2002, Toronto’s sewer use bylaw started fining dentists for mercury pollution. And all Toronto dentists now have to submit a pollution prevention plan to the city.

What about the alternatives? Most of us have white stuff filling the craters in our teeth, not silver. It may look harmless, but it has been found to leach bisphenol A, an estrogen-mimicking chemical that has turned up in the saliva of people with porcelain (or composite) sealants. The industry points to studies that say the sealant only leaches for up to a day, and then there’s nothing to worry about.

Biocalex (or Endocal), the holistic filling for root canals, is considered non-toxic (it’s made of zinc oxide and calcium oxide), but they’re known to crack. Not good.

So what is a poor broken-toothed soul to do? Take your cue from hiphop videos and fill your cavities (or root canals) with gold, baby. Okay, so gold mines don’t have a great environmental record, but they seem to be your safest option right now.

Should you take your old mercury fillings out to make the switch? Unless they’re making you sick, they’re better left alone. Drilling them can send toxic fumes into your mouth, and flying bits can get embedded in your cheeks.

And fillings aren’t the only aspect of dentistry that’s giving the planet a toothache. The traditional X-rays used to detect cavities also produce hazardous waste that needs to be carefully dealt with if it’s not going to pollute the planet.

The silver used to process that image of your pearly whites is actually a hazardous waste that can contaminate water supplies. Just cleaning the damn machine can be toxic if your dentist uses a chromium-based cleaner. (Ask your dentist if he/she uses chrome-free stuff and has a silver recovery system in place.) Lead foils from dental X- rays are another toxic pollutant that needs to be properly recycled. And so are those bulky lead aprons they splay across your chest before they leave you alone with the X-ray machine.

Of course, you can floss over this stuff altogether by opting for digital X-rays. All the cool dentists are doing it. (Too bad there aren’t more out there yet.) They definitely cut back on all that toxic waste, and they’re said to reduce patient exposure to radiation by as much as 80 per cent (though some say that number is exaggerated).

Dentistry can never be totally green, but if you call one of the city’s holistic dentists, you have a better shot at getting your teeth fixed by someone who’s earth-conscious.

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