By Kathleen McGee, Maine Toxics Action Coalition
Mercury is an incredibly toxic substance that has long been known to be a neurotoxin, affecting the very architecture of the brain, and more recently has been indicted as an endocrine disrupter as well, causing harm to the reproductive system.
The long-awaited National Academy of Science study on mercury told us what environmentalists have been saying for some time; that it is far more dangerous than previously thought.
The NAS estimated that at least 60,000 children each year could be at risk for neurological problems due to mercury exposure.
Further studies continue to raise the alarm about mercury and the necessity of removing it from our environment. On March 2 a survey released by the CDC stated that 10 percent of the population, and possibly higher, have blood levels of mercury that are dangerous.
Said Kate Mchaffey of the Environmental Protection Agency, "We don't consider this to be a trivial finding."
These findings amount to an estimated 375,000 babies a year at-risk for neurological, and possibly other problems, not 60,000 as previously estimated.
These are shocking numbers. Another study just released from Canada last month and published in the British journal NeuroReport discovered just how neurological damage occurs from mercury exposure. Studies have shown blood mercury levels in Alzheimer's patients were more than twofold higher and as much as threefold higher in early onset.
"What it really means is that we need to be far more concerned about sources of mercury exposure," said Dr. Lorscheider, a scientist involved with the study. In 1999 our governor, along with other New England governors and eastern Canadian premiers, pledged to "virtually" eliminate mercury with a short-term goal of a 50 percent reduction by 2003 through emission reduction, as well as source reduction and safe waste management.
If we ceased all mercury emissions tomorrow, our fish would still not be safe to eat for decades. The current estimate of man produced mercury emissions is about 158 tons a year in the United States.
That estimate comes largely from utility emissions and municipal and medical waste incinerators. What the EPA fails to consider in this estimate is a whopping 40 to 60 metric tons a year of mercury used by the dental industry.
Of that, at least six tons a year are discharged directly into sewers from dental offices and no less than eight tons a year are discharged through the excretion of urine and feces from individuals. This ends up in our waters and sediments. Sewage treatment plants cannot meet EPA guidelines for mercury due to individual excretion of mercury alone. This is augmented further by cremation when amalgam fillings are present.
The average amalgam filling, which is 50 percent mercury, has more than one-half gram of mercury. Because of the extreme toxicity of mercury, it only takes one-half gram to contaminate a 10-acre lake to the extent that fish consumption advisories would have to be issued. Multiply that by more than 100 million fillings a year in the United States alone and that gives you an idea of the magnitude of the problem.
Mercury vapor, which develops from chewing action and-or hot liquids or food in the mouth, quickly and easily crosses the brain barrier and the placenta causing problems both for an adult and for a developing fetus.
and other possible neurological disorders are all implicated.
As stated by Herbert Needleman, professor of pediatrics and psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh, "We are conducting a vast toxicological experiment in our society in which our children and our children's children are the experimental subjects."
Mercury concentrations start showing up in amniotic fluid just two days after the placement of amalgam, and grows in concentration during term, and is further concentrated and excreted in breast milk. According to one study in the European Journal of Pediatrics, "Fetal exposure should be considered when placing amalgam fillings. The unrestricted application of amalgam for dental restorations in women before and during the child-bearing age should be reconsidered."
Oddly, the American Dental Association, like alchemists of old who tried to turn lead, a highly toxic substance, into gold, claims that even though mercury is treated as a hazardous substance when brought into the dental office, and treated as hazardous waste when it leaves the dental office, it is somehow and magically safe in the mouth. How can this be? Very simple. It can't.
Mercury is toxic. Period.
This is not just a health or environmental issue, it is economic as well. D entists use amalgam fillings because they are "cheap." However, the use of mercury in any application is never cheap. The cost of negative health effects to individuals and insurance companies from mercury exposure is huge.
We can stop exposure from this source right now. There are safe alternatives and in the long run, less costly to the whole economically, environmentally and in quality of life. Furthermore, as scientific evidence mounts there will be, with almost absolute certainty, an "avalanche of product liability suits in the future," as stated in a letter from attorneys on behalf of the International Academy of Oral Medicine and Toxicology to amalgam manufacturers. In the interest of protecting their citizens, Sweden, Norway, Germany, Denmark, Austria, Japan, Finland and Canada have taken steps to limit and phase out the use of amalgam restorations.
California has followed suit. Maine already has the highest levels of mercury in fish statewide in the country. We have committed to virtual elimination of mercury in this state and in the region. We have banned thermometers in many areas, have take-back programs for thermostats and mercury switches; hospitals and even car manufacturers know they must remove mercury from their environments and products. Maine should take the lead and pass this law, further protecting our kids and our environment from mercury exposure.
Kathleen McGee is director of the Maine Toxics Action Coalition, which is responsible for posting Maine's waters with fish consumption advisories (including mercury, dioxin, PCBs and DDT) statewide.
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