Dentist the Menace

Peppermint Patty would be horrified. Lucy would scream bloody murder. But Charlie Brown is here to save the day from evil dentists who are filling our faces with evil contaminants. Brown is the legal counsel for the Coalition to Abolish Mercury Dental Fillings, a group of dentists, physicians and environmentalists who oppose the use of mercury-based dental fillings. Who knew that the so-called "silver" fillings we've all been dragging around in our molars are in fact poisoning our systems with mercury? Although the American Dental Association thinks he and his clients are full of hot air, Brown's not sleeping until he convinces the Arizona Legislature to pass a bill banning the use of nasty mercury fillings in the unsuspecting noggins of poor slobs like you and me.

New Times: I'm sorry. I just, you know, have to ask. Is Charlie Brown your real name?

Charlie Brown: Charles G. Brown. Charlie. Yeah, they call me Charlie Brown.

NT: The Coalition to Abolish Mercury Dental Fillings has drafted a bill opposing the use of toxic mercury in our mouths. Has the bill been voted on yet?

Brown: No. It was voted out of committee in the House, so it has to be redrafted, because the Speaker opposed the ban of mercury. But he agreed to support a disclosure bill. So we're going to rewrite it as a bill that would ban dentists from calling this stuff silver. That's the starting point.

NT: It does seem sort of misleading to call mercury fillings "silver fillings." All these years I thought I had a mouthful of precious metal, and instead my mouth is a toxic waste dump.

Brown: It's intentionally misleading. Anyone trained in science knows you don't call something by its second most common ingredient, but by its first. To call them mercury-silver fillings would be okay, or just mercury fillings. But not to mention the mercury at all is hiding something. Think of a pregnant woman in a dentist's chair. "We're now going to put mercury in your mouth!" Hopefully she'd jump out of the chair and run.

NT: You've targeted pregnant women as a high-risk group.

Brown: Pregnant women and children. Minority groups and low-income adults are also high-risk. The average middle-class white adult thinks his dentist doesn't use mercury fillings anymore. But it's cheaper to use mercury, and it's quicker to put in a mercury filling. So for kids -- who you want to get in and out of the dentist chair quickly -- and for low-income adults, there's no choice but mercury fillings.

NT: Maybe you're being too hard on these guys. Maybe dentists are just using shorthand when they refer to mercury fillings as "silver."

Brown: It's not shorthand. When the American Dental Association puts out brochures about "silver fillings," there's a definite intent to deceive. They want to hide the ball.

NT: So I have a toxic mouth?

Brown: Yes. When that stuff comes out of your mouth, there's only one place where it can go, and that's into a hazardous waste bag. It can't go down the drain; it must be taken away in one of those red bags. That's how toxic it is. And this is a fact that's hidden from the American people.

NT: That we're letting dentists put the world's most toxic non-radioactive element into our heads.

Brown: It's not only the most toxic, it's the most volatile. It continually leaks into your system; it comes off in a continuous vapor that leeches into your brain. There are numerous health hazards here. Here's proof: You can spill a lot of different substances like lead or arsenic, and you have to clean it up. But if you spill mercury, you have to call in the astronauts to come clean it up.

NT: Then why are dentists using this stuff?

Brown: In part because it's cheaper. And because it's always been there. In the 19th century, doctors of the mouth couldn't use mercury because it was considered malpractice to do so, but it was easy to work with. It was drunk for syphilis. The Lewis and Clark expedition? Many of those men drank mercury to cure syphilis. They came back to St. Louis healthy as horses, but they all died in their 30s.

NT: Well. At least my toxic fillings will protect me from social diseases. The American Dental Association supports the use of mercury fillings. They gave it their "seal of acceptance."

Brown: And they have no basis for it. They've never done a study, and they've never found them safe. It's an economic decision. It's just a good way to make money with dentistry: Drill, fill and bill.

NT: But how is the ADA making money? Because they hold the patent on mercury fillings?

Brown: Their patent is expired. It's the use of the ADA endorsement that makes the money. Every manufacturer of dental fillings wants the ADA seal, so the manufacturer writes them a check for that privilege. It's a strategic move economically, but not related at all to the value of the product.

NT: It's a conspiracy!

Brown: It's not unfair to call it a conspiracy.

NT: Isn't it true that the ADA had a gag rule about discussing the dangers of mercury fillings?

Brown: Yes. They were telling dentists, "Don't criticize mercury's health effects to your patients." That's the power the ADA had, and an example of their absolute irresponsibility. It's outrageous that they would try to enforce a gag rule while they had a patent.

NT: So how'd they get away with this?

Brown: Because the ADA controls dental boards.

NT: But now that Libertarian groups have become interested in the issue . . .

Brown: The gag rule is gone as an enforcement policy of the dental licensing boards. But the ADA still has it. So dentists still fear the loss of their licenses, or that the ADA will call them unethical or won't give them referrals. And it's that kind of power with which the ADA keeps the lid on the dangers of mercury fillings.

NT: Do people think you're a wacko?

Brown: The ADA does. Their argument is, "Mercury fillings have been used for 50 years, and so they're safe." Or they'll tell you that since the dental industry puts in 100 million mercury fillings each year, and no one's dropping over dead, it must be safe. But there are no studies.

NT: There must have been one study done.

Brown: Not one. Zero. Call them up and ask for their latest study about the safety of dental amalgam fillings. The FDA has a dental section run by dentists who say mercury is safe but who don't do any studies.

NT: How do I know if I'm toxic?

Brown: You can have a homeopathic urinalysis, or there's a device that measures mercury content called the Jerome Mercury Vapor Analyzer. You put it in your mouth and it determines the amount of mercury you're giving off.

NT: Scary!

Brown: What's really scary is that the mercury is always coming off of you in vapors if you have amalgam fillings. You can chew gum for 10 minutes and there's mercury coming off your fillings and sticking to the gum.

NT: Radioactive Wrigley's! But if that's the case, wouldn't my fillings have worn away by now, if I'm always walking around dripping mercury?

Brown: No, because it's a vapor. The same amount comes off the day you put it in as the day you take it out. It's an endless source that's coming off constantly, for like 100 years.

NT: So, what? My dentist is supposed to say to me, "Oh, by the way, I'm going to put this toxic waste into your mouth now"?

Brown: Under an Arizona law passed in 2000, yes. Dentists are now required to tell patients what's in the filling and why the dentist is choosing that material. That statute has been ignored by the dental board.

NT: But it's too late for me. I've had four mercury fillings since 1968. I'm doomed.

Brown: No! Not at all. You can detox. Get your mercury fillings taken out by a dentist who respects their toxicity. The two biggest exposure days are when the filling goes in and when it comes out. The mercury is released into the air you're breathing on those days.

NT: What type of filling should we be getting, then?

Brown: Composite, porcelain, or gold. Composite is the most common.

NT: But what's the point? I mean, the second leading cause of mercury in our systems is fish. So I can't eat salmon and I'm scared of my teeth, and, hey, what about the rinse and spit factor? Dentists are dumping mercury from fillings into our water, I'm guessing.

Brown: You're right. The number one source of mercury in our wastewater is dentists. So it's in the fish, and it's in the water, and it comes down to this: We've got to stop our sources of mercury. I mean, with nuclear power plants, at least we can drive to the mountains to get away from their toxicity. We can't get away from our mouths.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela