Patients can still get metal amalgam fillings at many dental offices, but those dentists may soon be forced to protect the environment from the resulting waste. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is scheduled to release a new rule for dental offices in November regarding best management practices, including disposal of amalgam waste.
This waste is not just old fillings to throw away. Tiny mercury particles can get trapped in vacuum pump filters or in the chair, and even the leftover scraps after filling a tooth must be disposed of somehow. Dental offices may soon be required to use an amalgam separator, which catches solid particles (often in vacuum lines) before it is flushed out with the rest of the waste.
Dental Tribune explained how these amalgam scraps can harm the environment:
Because amalgam is composed of 50 percent mercury by weight, placing amalgam scraps or extracted teeth with amalgam restoration in bio-hazardous waste provides a direct line to the environment. Bio-hazardous waste is incinerated, releasing the mercury contained in the amalgam into the atmosphere. Some municipalities incinerate their trash while others use landfills, but in either case, the mercury is made available to enter into the environment.
Flushing amalgam down the drain places responsibility on the local sewer authority to remove the mercury before it can discharge to lakes, rivers and streams. Treatment plants are not designed to remove specific chemicals — typically only solids are removed — and thus a path is provided for mercury to enter the environment.
Amalgam separators are already required in at least 10 states and several other municipalities.
Many dentists choose not to offer amalgam fillings because of safety concerns for the patient with the mercury in amalgam metal. Instead, they offer composite fillings, which are often considered the better-looking and safer option. Amalgam fillings tend to be more affordable and often last longer, however, so they are still an economical choice for many.
Does your state require amalgam separators?
To learn more about amalgam separators, visit The Journal of the American Dental Association.