Amalgam is a commonly used dental material to treat and fill cavities. This has much to do with its strength and durability; it is also the most inexpensive type of tooth filling compared to other options such as gold, composite or porcelain. Dental amalgam is made of an equal amount of elemental liquid mercury and an alloy powder containing silver, copper, tin and usually a small amount of zinc. However, due to an increasing emphasis on keeping smiles metal-free for health and aesthetic reasons, today fewer dentists recommend dental amalgam fillings as optimal dental treatment.
A Stitch in Time
Historically, a mercury-based material was used to treat tooth decay as early as the 7th century by the Chinese. By the Middle Ages, it became a popular tooth filling across the globe. Then, around 1859, tin was added to refine the use of amalgam for teeth; this is now the mixture that we are familiar with today.
Gossip, Rumors, and Hoopla
Over the years, there has been much concern about the safety of this abundant dental material. This has been a serious concern for many consumers, and numerous research studies have been conducted to dispel the many myths that surround dental amalgam and mercury poisoning. A panel was convened comprising of scientists from the National Institutes of Health's National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, the Center for Devices and Radiological Health of the FDA, the CDC, and the Public Health Service's chief dental officer, here are their results:
Myth 1: Mercury causes Alzheimer's.
Methyl mercury is commonly found in fish and can be harmful to the brain if taken in large amounts.
Evidence showed that 95 percent of people have mercury levels at or lower than that deemed harmful by the World Health Organization (WHO).
The Alzheimer's Association states there is "no relationship between silver dental fillings and Alzheimer's."
Myth 2: Amalgam releases mercury vapor that can be harmful to your health.
A WHO consensus states that a small amount of mercury is released during placement and removal of dental fillings, but has "not been shown to cause any adverse health effects."
Myth 3: Mercury is harmful to pregnant women.
Many women are concerned about amalgam fillings during pregnancy. To ease this concern, talk to your dentist about alternatives. For example, if a dental filling needs to be placed when you are pregnant, composite resin fillings could be a viable option.
Amalgam in a Nutshell
If you are allergic to mercury, silver and/or any of the materials used in amalgam, your dentist will not recommend any further use. It's important to realize also that amalgam may require more drilling than other types of dental fillings. Your dentist will have to drill a hole in your tooth big enough to accommodate the amalgam. Composite -- the most commonly used alternative to amalgam -- matches your teeth and with proper maintenance can last as long as any amalgam filling. Composite dental fillings, subsequently, require much less drilling.
Before embarking on any kind of dental work, have a frank discussion with your dentist. Ask about alternatives, treatment options and likelihood of any adverse reaction. Together, you and your dentist will decide the best course of action.