By Jody McCutcheon
From x-rays and mercury-based amalgam fillings to fluoride treatments and tooth bleaching, the dental industry is rife with potential health hazards, yet few patients are properly informed of the potential risks of their treatments, and some dentists still believe the risks are low enough not to warrant any explanations.
Yet any member of the Eco-Dentistry Association (EDA) would disagree. This is a growing network of dentists and oral surgeons across North America and Europe embracing sustainability, prevention and minimally invasive, patient-friendly technologies in their dental practices. The EDA fosters this philosophy by supplying the network with resources to reduce waste, pollution, water and energy consumption and to facilitate green dentistry and healthier patient care.
But what exactly sparked the rise of the eco-dentistry movement? And should you start looking for an holistic dentist?
X Rays: What’s Acceptable?
In the matter of intraoral x-rays, different speeds of film can be used: the higher the speed, the lower the dose of radiation. But many dentists complain about the higher-speed film’s cost and image readability, so they opt for lower-speed film, exposing the patient to more radiation. But how much radiation do you get from such an x-ray? A typical dental x-ray exposes a patient to half as much radiation as does a flight from New York to Los Angeles. Many familiar things emit doses of radiation that fall within acceptable limits: smoke detectors, natural gas stoves, even our own bodies contain tiny amounts of radioactivity(1). So why does the dental assistant leave you alone in the room with the radiation when she takes the image?
Evidence suggests a link between brain tumours and bite wing x-rays. When patients get these done once a year, their risk of developing a brain tumour can increase up to 90%! But risks for other types of cancer also increase, including saliva gland cancer, thyroid cancer and even breast cancer.
Silver Lining to Silver Fillings?
Yet another serious concern about dentistry is the use of amalgam fillings. Popularly referred to as “silver fillings,” they actually are composed of about 50% mercury, which is a dangerous neurotoxin and environmental contaminant. Sweden, Norway and Denmark have banned amalgam due to ecological concerns, while Sweden also cited human health concerns. On the other hand, the American Dental Association (ADA) displays an almost perverse preference for amalgam, to the point where it helped licensing boards strip licenses from dentists who told patients amalgam equals mercury. No surprise, perhaps, as the ADA once was a patent-holder of amalgam(2).
Elsewhere, most dentists don’t place mercury amalgam fillings any more—composite resin is the new preference—but they continue to remove them from people who don’t want mercury in their mouth. Ironically, these offices generate more mercury waste than offices that place the amalgam fillings, up to three pounds annually(3). The removal process releases more mercury vapours in the patient’s mouth, but a rubber dental dam installed in the mouth will prevent ingestion of the vapours into the lungs.
Proper disposal of removed amalgam is equally important. The EDA recommends an amalgam separator, which extracts the mercury before expelling the amalgam waste into the water supply. Still, too few American dentists are practicing safe disposal techniques. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 50% of the mercury entering US wastewater treatment plants comes from dental offices(4).
Fluoride: Friend or Foe?
Dentistry’s biggest argument-starter might be its use of fluoride, in the water system and to a lesser extent in toothpaste and mouthwash. Studies show it fights tooth decay, and many people and organizations stand behind this claim, including the EDA(4). But evidence seems to be mounting of a dark side to fluoridation, apart from the mottling of teeth known as dental fluorosis. Fluoride may cause cancer, a weakening of bones, problems with kidneys, thyroid, immune system, even a lowering of intelligence(5)(6). Most of Continental Europe has stopped water fluoridation programs. The EDA’s advice for those who are wary of fluoride may be most telling: If you brush and floss and get your teeth checked regularly, fluoride can’t help.
Sealants and Cancer
Finally, organic dentists are also questioning the safety of dental sealants and resins. Sealants, which are usually applied to back teeth as barriers against decay-causing bacteria, are under fire because they may leach bisphenol-A (BPA), an endocrine disruptor. Endocrine disruptors have been linked to declining sperm counts and increased cancer rates in humans.
The controversy began with a University of Granada study, published in Environmental Health Perspectives in 1996, which found that BPA had leached into patients’ saliva shortly after dental sealant application. In response to this study, the ADA tested the 12 brands of sealants that carry its seal of acceptance and found that 11 of them leached no detectable BPA; they contacted the manufacturer of the twelfth, who implemented additional quality control procedures and whose product then leached no detectable BPA in subsequent testing. However, many experts say much more research is needed before it can be concluded what kinds of sealants leach BPA, and whether BPA can be absorbed from saliva at harmful levels. Still, we don’t like the idea of having a carcinogen permanently in our mouths, whether it leaches out or not!
Root Canals: Not a Good Idea
“You need a root canal” is now almost as common as hearing you need a filling – 60m are performed around the world each year. Dentists will tell you it’s the only way to keep a diseased tooth. Yet – why would you want to keep something dead and diseased in your mouth? And just how safe are root canals? What is the science behind their being a non–toxic alternative to tooth extractions?
These questions are not new. Indeed, way back in the early 1900s, one Dr. Weston Price and the Mayo Clinic described finding bacterial growth in root canals that could be transferred into animals and create the same diseases the donor human had in from 80 to 100 percent of the animals. Heart disease, in particular, could be transferred 100 percent of the time. This research has since been suppressed by the various Dental Associations in the United States.
The Toxic Element Research Foundation (TERF), using state of the art DNA testing technology, identified multiple pathological bacteria found within root canal teeth, the bone adjacent to the teeth, and even more in extraction sites where proper healing has not taken place. This occurs in greater than 99 percent of wisdom tooth extraction sites.
Dr. Weston Price’s death-bed wish was for someone to pick up his hard earned baton and make this information available to the public. Some medics, like Dr Mercola, have spoken out on how toxic root canals really are. The question now becomes: What will patients, government agencies and the dental profession do about it?
The Bottom Line
The potential health risks of some types of dental treatment are undeniable. Surely there are better options? Be sure to weigh the risk of the treatment you are told you need with the potential benefits. Meanwhile, let’s hope the EDA network continues what is already an impressive expansion, working to raise eco-consciousness in dental offices around the world o promote patient health with safer diagnostic and treatment methods. Then we all can smile wide.