The use of amalgam for dental fillings is nothing new. However, the use is also relatively controversial in some circles. While there are many companies and organizations that discuss the safety of amalgam fillings, there are many more that say these kinds of fillings are dangerous and should not be used. Which option is correct and whether it varies from person to person has to be considered. That is the main reason behind this paper - there is controversy, and until there has been information provided and examined it is hard to come to a conclusion about the use of amalgam in dental fillings. People outside of the dental profession may not be familiar with amalgam, and they may refer to their fillings as "silver" fillings because of their color. Despite the coloration, however, these fillings are not silver and contain many other types of chemicals, including mercury.
In an effort to clearly understand the issues and controversy surrounding amalgam fillings, it is necessary to look at the background information on the issue. From that point, a discussion can be engaged in and conclusions can be drawn that will allow the researcher to better understand why amalgam is used, what the concerns are regarding it, and how others have determined that it is safe to continue to use. Only then can suggestions and recommendations be made that will allow for further research and discussion to take place. With that in mind, the researcher can provide insight and helpful information to others who will study the use of amalgam in dental fillings in the future. Whether amalgam is deemed safe or whether it should no longer be used for fillings, the only way to decide the issue is through proper research and understanding.
One of the best ways to begin a study is by writing down some of the prior assumptions on dental amalgams. Many people know that they are commonly used in dentistry and supported by established dentists. They also know that the American Dental Association (ADA) supports the use of dental amalgams, and deems them safe. However, one of the reasons why it is important to study the topic of dental amalgams is because they are controversial. Many patients believe that dental amalgams are toxic. A quick, simple online search reveals a large number of websites that talk about the dangers of dental amalgams. Taking a day and reviewing many of these websites is very enlightening. In addition to using the standard search engine, it is also valuable to use Google Scholar to collect information. That site leads a researcher to a number of publications, websites, books, and journals. Each had something different and interesting to say on dental amalgams.
The United States Food and Drug Administration defines dental amalgams broadly and generally. An amalgam is simply defined as "a dental filling material that is used to fill cavities caused by tooth decay," (FDA, 2012). The FDA (2012) has evaluated dental amalgams for safety because amalgams are classified as medical devices, which fall under the FDA's jurisdiction. Therefore, one of the things the researcher learned early on in the search was the process by which any medical device is evaluated. A company cannot simply market a medical product without first receiving approval from government bodies like the Food and Drug Administration. The researcher also learned that the U.S. FDA works together with other organizations such as the American Dental Association when it comes to products like amalgams. Another organization that has some jurisdiction over the use of mercury in amalgams is the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA, 2012).
In the course of the search, the researcher learned a little of the history of dental amalgams. They are not new. They have been used since the early 19th century (Scenihr & Scher, 2008). However, this fact alone would not deem amalgams safe. One of the causes of concern about amalgams is that they contain mercury, which is a known toxin when introduced into the human body. "As a single element, mercury is a poisonous metal to which we are all exposed through air, water, soil and food," (Canadian Dental Association, 2012). Mercury is classified as a heavy metal. It is unique in that mercury is liquid at room temperature, unlike other metals such as gold. It even turns into a vapor, which is one of the presumed problems with using mercury as a filling. Even in the 19th century, dental amalgams contained mercury as well as other metals. The other metals contained in amalgam alloys include silver, copper, and tin. These other metals are combined with mercury in an alloy amalgam.
Amalgams are used when there is a significant enough amount of tooth decay to warrant a filling. The dentist takes the material (the amalgam) and repairs the surface or structure of the tooth. At this point in the search, it was easy to wonder why mercury was used in dental amalgams and whether there were properties of mercury that made it attractive for that particular usage. After all, dental amalgams can be made with a number of materials that do not include mercury. Patients frequently request fillings that are made with alternative materials for two main reasons: one is concern over the safety of mercury in their mouths, and the other is aesthetics. Some new composite materials can be the color of the surrounding tooth. Acrylic is one of the materials that is used in amalgams. According to the EPA (2012), materials such as resin composite, glass ionomer, resin ionomer, porcelain, and gold alloys may also be used in tooth fillings. A tooth-colored filling is appealing because the filling blends in with the surrounding tooth, and does not stand out as a silver-filled tooth would.
In fact, the European Union released a report noting that fillings that use tooth-colored materials not only look better; they are also easier to maintain because they require less intervention or maintenance (Scenihr & Scher, 2008). Therefore, many people prefer to use materials other than mercury in their fillings. The researcher concluded, based on the research conducted, that mercury is a preferred material in dental fillings precisely for its unique chemical properties. It is liquid at room temperature, suggesting that the dentist can work easily with the material used in the amalgam. Yet the researcher could not help but wonder why there were no other materials with similar qualities that could be used, and which clearly posed no danger. The researcher also wondered if there were financial reasons why mercury has been supported by so many dental associations. Perhaps there are contracts that need to be fulfilled between amalgam manufacturers and mercury harvesters and distributors? Or perhaps the mercury-containing amalgams are significantly cheaper than their other composite components.
Scenihr & Scher (2008) point out that, in addition to silver, copper, and tin, zinc may also be used in the creation of amalgam. According to Scenihr & Scher (2008), the general proportion, or ratio, for an amalgam filling is one part mercury to one part alloy (any combination of silver, copper, tin, or zinc). The researcher was correct in assuming that the malleability of the mercury is the main reason why it is a favored amalgam material. The dentist will form a paste from the metal mixture, and apply this paste to the cavity. Then, the filling is pressed while it is still malleable. During the installation process, some mercury vapor may escape into the patient's mouth (Scenihr & Scher, 2008). The filling will also gradually release some vapor into the person's mouth over time, something that cannot be avoided. All of the major research organizations that the researcher came across in the search, including the American Dental Association, the Canadian Dental Association, the European Union, the United States Environmental Protection Agency, and the United States Food and Drug Administration, stated that the mercury content contained in dental amalgam is at levels that are safe for most adults and children over the age of six years.
However, there were some clear warnings of using mercury fillings provided by the FDA (2012). According to its research, "there is limited clinical information about the potential effects of dental amalgam fillings on pregnant women and their developing fetuses, and on children under the age of 6, including breastfed infants," (FDA, 2012). In addition to the lack of research on this potentially sensitive population, there may be individuals with an allergy to heavy metals (FDA, 2012). Concerns over the safety of mercury in general have led to a heavy reduction in the use of the metal. The EPA (2012) states, "the amount of mercury used in consumer products dropped 83% between 1980 and 1997, largely as a result of federal legislation and state regulatory limits on mercury usage." This could suggest that mercury is more dangerous than many dentists believe. Dentists, the researcher learned, are actually more at risk than their patients. "Dental workers are considerably more exposed to mercury than the general population.…