Dental clinics account for almost as much use of mercury as all other uses combined, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Credit: Melissa Lizotte | The Star-Herald

Mercury is such a dangerous neurotoxin that it is the subject of an entire environmental treaty. The treaty, called the Minamata Convention on Mercury, entered into legal force in 2017, with the United States and almost 100 other nations participating in it.

But a big surprise is that the largest use of mercury in America is dental amalgam, which some dentists use for teeth fillings. Those “silver fillings” that you may have heard of are not mainly made of silver, but made of mercury. The U.S. Geological Survey says that dental clinics account for almost as much use of mercury as all other uses combined. So why are we still using it, and what effect is it having?

If amalgam were a necessity in dentistry, it would be one thing – but today, the opposite is true. Amalgam has been surpassed by technically superior materials, which are minimally invasive and preserve tooth structure. Amalgam is not only polluting, but it also harms tooth structure — which can lead to cracked teeth and huge future dental bills. Indisputably, 21st century technology is mercury-free dentistry.

The reason to stop using amalgam is fourfold: environmental pollution, the safety of our children, environmental justice and occupational health hazard.

Mercury is one of the most toxic environmental pollutants. It is what we talk about when we talk about the pollution drifting into Maine from other states. It is what is polluting our rivers and lakes, and making fish unsafe to eat for pregnant women and children.

It harms fishermen who cannot fish. It harms funeral directors who are required to build expensive antipollution equipment to block the mercury from cremated teeth from going to nearby schools, and it hurts our splendid tourism industry that works so hard to keep our state pollution-free.

Most importantly, mercury is very dangerous for our children as they develop. When they consume mercury-based fish or mercury in vegetables, it puts them at risk of major neurological damage or other permanent harm. Yet, we continue to say it is safe to put it in their mouths — even when there are cost competitive and viable alternatives. In fact, The European Union’s science body calls dental amalgam a “secondary poisoning” because its mercury gets into the children’s food supply, which is why Europe now bans amalgam for children under 15 and for pregnant and breastfeeding women.

Who gets amalgam in their teeth these days? Most of us who have our own dentist and private insurance do not — private dentists increasingly are going mercury-free. Those who are left behind are children receiving MaineCare, Native Americans served by the Indian Health Service, soldiers and sailors, and prisoners and others living in institutions. This is not just or fair.

In addition, being the only metal that is liquid at room temperature, mercury vaporizes and exposes workers in dental offices when preparing amalgam fillings, which are 50 percent mercury.

Is cost the reason? No. When you add environmental costs, amalgam costs $87 more per filling than composite. The price of glass ionomers is virtually the same price as amalgam. No, it’s not cost — it’s the fact that bureaucracies in Washington and Augusta have not caught up with modern dentistry.

So it’s time to say to Maine taxpayers, Maine’s children and all Maine citizens, we are on your side. Sen. Michael Carpenter is the sponsor of a bill that will stop the state of Maine from using taxpayers’ money to pay for amalgam on the children of Maine, or in any of our schools or institutions. Dr. Mohammed Imam is asking dentists throughout Maine to support this legislation.

Taxpayers will stop paying for polluting dentistry. Instead, our tax dollars will pay for clean and modern dentistry. Neither quality of dental care, nor quantity of dental care, will suffer one bit, and our children and environment will benefit. Future generations will thank us.

Michael Carpenter, an attorney, represents Senate District 2, which consists of central and southern Aroostook County and part of Penobscot County. Mohammed Imam is a dentist practicing in Skowhegan.