A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Are you being poisoned by your silver tooth fillings?

September 5, 1986

Dear Cecil:

My neighbor has been advised by her holistic dentist that she needs to have her silver alloy fillings replaced with gold ones. The dentist claims that the mercury in her fillings is leaching out and poisoning her. This sounds like bullshit to me, but now I'm beginning to wonder. Should I worry? Is mercury carving divots in my brain?

Cecil replies:

Hard to say. On the one hand, looking strictly at the facts, I'd say the only leaching your neighbor has to worry about is her "holistic dentist" leaching bucks out of her wallet. On the other hand, they say mercury causes severe brain damage, which would certainly account for some of the mail I've been getting lately. So you're just going to have to decide for yourself.

Most people have the foolish idea that silver fillings are made out of silver. In reality, they're made from an alloy called "amalgam," which is about half mercury, plus some silver and other stuff. Mercury is poisonous, but until recently scientists thought it stayed put in the filling. Then in 1979 some researchers found that chewing can release small amounts of mercury from old fillings. The question is whether enough of it winds up in your system to do you any damage. Some dentists say it does, and they claim the only solution is to replace the silver fillings with gold or composite resin. The price? Probably several hundred dollars — which strikes some as suspicious. Times have been tough for dentists lately because of the success of fluoridation, which has cut the number of cavities in half. So you have to wonder whether dentists aren't exaggerating the mercury danger to drum up a little business.

Consumer Reports, which ran a long article on this subject in its March 1986 issue, sent a volunteer out to have his teeth tested by an antiamalgam dentist. The dentist took some readings with a mercury-vapor analyzer and said the guy's mercury levels were so high he was lucky he wasn't drooling already. His "highly acidic saliva" was allegedly making things even worse. The volunteer then hiked over to a doctor, who did some more tests, only to discover that the guy's mercury levels were well within normal limits and that his saliva was neutral. So either we have a remarkable case of spontaneous recovery, or the dentist was selling a crock. Consumer Reports also found that some of the leading antiamalgam dentists were … well, I'm not saying they were quacks, but you did have to wonder whether the D.D.S. after their names was Latin for "student of Donald Duck."

Still worried? Then keep an eye out for these telltale symptoms: tremors, incoherent speech, difficulty in walking, and feeblemindedness. If you got 'em, you've got one of two problems: either you've been poisoned by mercury, or you've had one hell of a Saturday night.

A dissent

Dear Cecil:

I read your column on amalgam fillings with interest. However, I must tell you that if you and Consumer Reports were sued for slander, you would both lose. If you had had the benefit of the experience of individuals who have had their mercury amalgam fillings replaced you would have written a completely different story.

With 20-20 hindsight I can pinpoint the date when I started to act like a senile old man. It was immediately after I had a root canal on one of my molars that involved lots of silver. I became absent-minded to a fault, had a poor memory, and suffered frequent bouts of mental confusion. For example, I would be driving home as usual and somewhere en route I would look around and not remember where I was or where I was going. My wife repeatedly scolded me for "acting like an old man." It was so bad I thought seriously about taking early retirement because I was not performing on the job to my standards.

Out of frustration I had my silver fillings replaced with something other than amalgam, in the hope that my mental health would be restored. Immediately afterward I stopped acting like an old man. My long and short term memory improved. I became more assertive in my relationships with other people (before-and-after handwriting analysis tends to bear this out).

From my youth I had had a 2-3 second delay in responding to a normal conversation, and my response to a question was always "what?" Both these traits have vanished. It has been two years since I had the silver removed and I have no problem carrying on a normal conversation. I have dismissed any thought of early retirement because I can now meet the requirements of my job with no difficulty.

What a lot of people fail to realize is that having toxic metals in your body in any amount is not good for you. The medical world deals with this in clinical tests by comparing your results to the average, and if your reading is average or less, you're home free. This is wrong. Any toxic metal, no matter how small the amount, should be dealt with as the poison it is, including mercury fillings.

Cecil replies:

Glad you're feeling better, Frank. But come on. EVERYBODY has amalgam tooth fillings. If the stuff really caused brain damage, we'd be surrounded by blithering idio-- … hm. Frank, you know, I'm going to have to give this some more thought.

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