House Hears of Dental Mercury Ending Up in Fish

An agreement to have dentists voluntarily reduce mercury emissions from their offices has been largely ineffective, exposing Americans to more mercury in their fish, representatives of state environmental agencies and a mercury watchdog group told a House of Representative subcommittee last week.

Instead, they urged the Environmental Protection Agency to establish federal guidelines for regulating dental waste emissions, which have become one of the largest sources of mercury pollution in wastewater.

The hearing of the Domestic Policy Subcommittee of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee focused on a 2008 Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the EPA and the American Dental Association, the trade association representing most American dentists. The MOU, reached during the last days of the Bush administration, allowed dentists to avoid federal oversight of mercury emissions. Instead, the ADA agreed that it would encourage its members to install “dental amalgam separators” that dramatically reduce the waste from the mercury used in many dental fillings.

The Mercury Policy Project contends the “midnight deal” between the Bush Administration’s EPA and the ADA was based on data that significantly underestimated the level of mercury pollution coming from dentists’ offices. The group also points out that the ADA claims that dental mercury doesn’t end up in fish, which differs from the EPA’s findings.

The EPA/ADA agreement came under fire from subcommittee Chairman Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), who asked Nancy Stoner, representing the EPA, why state environmental agencies had not been included. He also asked her why she wasn’t prepared to say the agreement wouldn’t be extended unless the agency saw a dramatic increase in dentists reducing mercury pollution through amalgam separators.

Stoner, who herself did not participate in shaping the MOU, said the EPA was gathering more data and reviewing the effectiveness of the volunteer program. “No exemption is permanent,” she testified.

But Kucinich countered that his staff has found that, “The ADA is not tracking dentists’ compliance,” adding, “I think you need to take a closer look at ADA’s outreach” to its members.

William Walsh, outside counsel for the ADA, admitted to some “early failures” in getting dentists to control mercury emissions on their own. But he says his organization has now set first-year adoption goals of 20 percent of the dentists in the 38 states where there aren’t laws regulating mercury emissions. It would then aim for increasing the number of members who install amalgam separators by 25 percent every year.

But Kucinich directed Walsh to a chart showing that dentists have purchased the anti-pollution devices in large numbers only when they were required to by law. “Dentists, in fact, are not voluntarily adopting amalgam separators,” he said.

Walsh also was chastised by subcommittee member Diane Watson (D-California) when he didn’t respond directly to her question. “Should dentists have to tell their patients that these amalgam fillings are mainly mercury?” asked Rep. Watson.