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Editorial: Feds OK mercury in teeth but not in air

infographics-KickstarterLogofrom the Lexington Herald-Leader, July 23, 2015

Consider: One arm of the Obama administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, is requiring power plants to install billions of dollars in pollution controls to keep mercury from falling on land and water where it contaminates fish that humans might eat.

Meanwhile, another arm of the administration, the Department of Health and Human Services, is defending a 160-year-old dental technique that fills cavities by implanting mercury directly into people’s mouths.

Someone should explain.

Instead, Health and Human Services is acting like its rejection of recommended curbs on dentists’ widespread use of the neurotoxin is a state secret.

The McClatchy Washington Bureau reports that the agency has offered no explanation or data to back up its veto of the anti-mercury warning the Food and Drug Administration recommended in late 2011.

And officials say they can’t answer questions because of litigation brought by consumers seeking to prod the government to act on mercury-safety questions.

In other words, the administration is offering pitiful excuses for covering up information that affects millions of Americans.

Maybe the government will decide that the benefits would not justify the costs of alternatives to mercury in dentistry, especially if the change made fillings too expensive for some people to afford. That position could be interpreted as the federal government saying that the risk of tremors, infertility, brain damage and organ failure is the price poor people must pay to avoid sore teeth.

Regardless, all the assumptions that go into such a decision and the data behind them should be laid out in full public view.

That way citizens can do their own cost-benefit analyses and decide whether shucking out an extra $100 per tooth for the cheapest alternative, a resin composite, is worth it.

As it stands now, the government appears to be covering up dangers that are especially dire for children and medically sensitive people to protect an interest group that gives generously to political campaigns.

Fillings usually described as silver consist of about half mercury blended with other metals, including silver. Mercury in fillings can escape as a gas that’s absorbed into the body. Vaporizing mercury is dangerous enough that schools are shut down for cleanups after accidental mercury spills.

The American Dental Association once collected income from patents it held on mercury amalgams. Now the association’s code of ethics bars dentists from speaking to patients about mercury’s risks.

But dentists, who themselves are at risk when working with the toxin, are increasingly adopting alternatives.

No doubt many in the profession, along with the manufacturers of mercury amalgams, are worried about increasing their exposure to lawsuits if the government acknowledges the dangers of mercury fillings.

But such concerns should not drive decisions by Health and Human Services or the FDA which describes itself as “Protecting and Promoting Your Health.” At the very least, the public is owed full transparency.

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