Putting my mouth where my mercury is

I'm getting a bit sick of reading about the alleged "risks" of mercury:

Leila Varella's son Darius, 9, no longer munches tuna sandwiches for lunch. His mother now regrets the slabs of shark she tossed onto the grill.

Two years ago, amid national concern about mercury in seafood, they plucked strands of hair to be tested in a national survey of mercury levels in the U.S. population by the environmental group Greenpeace.

Darius' level was slightly high, so Varella nixed the fish.

"Mercury," said Varella, of Philadelphia, "is not something he needs."

It's not something anyone needs. It can interfere with fetal brain development. At high enough levels, it can cause other health problems in children and adults.

As evidence of its harm mounts, regulators and public-health officials have sought stricter controls, especially on the biggest source: coal-fired power plants.

Although the federal Environmental Protection Agency instituted new restrictions on plants in 2005, New Jersey recently trumped them by passing more stringent rules, and Pennsylvania is on the brink of doing likewise.

The industry opposes the Pennsylvania proposal, which calls for a 90 percent reduction in emissions by 2015, while the public has supported it in a record number of comments.

Greenpeace? A record number of comments?

Is no one interested in actual evidence?

I should be, because my mouth is full of the stuff. But the available hard science doesn't seem to think that's dangerous:

Children who got "silver" dental fillings containing mercury amalgam showed no neuropsychological or neurobehavioral differences compared with kids who got fillings of a polymer composite, say two new studies out Wednesday.

The studies in the Journal of the American Medical Association try to resolve a heated debate over amalgam fillings, but groups that believe mercury in amalgam is harmful disputed the findings and the ethics of testing them on children.

No large, randomized trials had previously been done to address the possible affects of mercury ingested from mercury amalgam dental fillings. A known potent neurotoxin, mercury is believed by some to pose a danger as minute amounts of it enter the body through the mouth.

Mercury amalgam has been used in dentistry for 150 years. Fillings made from it are 40% to 50% mercury. For over a century amalgam was believed to be inert, but about 25 years ago researchers discovered that amalgam fillings emit small amounts of mercury vapor.

(See also Quackwatch.) Small amounts? How might these amounts compare mathematically to the emissions from coal-fired plants?

Mercury, of course, is a natural element; not man-made. In ground coal it is measured in parts per billion, and overall US mercury emissions from coal are a small fraction of the worldwide total (half of which are natural emissions:

World wide mercury emissions are estimated at 5,000 to 5,500 tons/year with natural emissions half the worldwide total depending on volcanic activity. The US generates 117 tons/year (40 tons/yr from power plants).

Volcanic emissions are unpredictable but average around 700 tons/yr worldwide. There are over 5,000 surface and submarine volcanoes in the world with over 50 eruptions each month that can cause worldwide emissions to spike in any single year.

With respect to natural emissions in the U.S.: Roaming Mountain Wyoming researchers established that mercury emanating from a clay hillside were over 250 times as high as background levels away from geothermal areas. The Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Lab issued a report in 2004 that Yellowstone Park could emit as much mercury as all of Wyoming's eight coal burning power plants. Illinois researchers have demonstrated that coal fired power generation could account for only a fraction of the mercury in the soil, indicating that most of the mercury in the soil was present before coal was used for generating electricity.

I think the EPA should close Yellowstone Park ASAP!

They also ought to issue a cease and desist order against me, for my teeth are loaded with mercury -- at levels far above that occurring in ground coal.

Why, I'm so loaded with mercury that it's unsafe to cremate me! Seriously, the people who are worried about burning coal should read this!

Additionally cremation of those with amalgam fillings adds to air emissions and deposition onto land and lakes. A study in Switzerland found that in that small country, cremation released over 65 kilograms of mercury per year as emissions, often exceeding site air mercury standards(9), while another Swiss study found mercury levels during cremation of a person with amalgam fillings as high as 200 micrograms per cubic meter (considerably higher than U.S. mercury standards). The amount of mercury in the mouth of a person with fillings was on average 2.5 grams, enough to contaminate 5 ten acre lakes to the extent there would be dangerous levels in fish(2). A Japanese study estimated mercury emissions from a small crematorium there as 26 grams per day(10). A study in Sweden found significant occupational and environmental exposures at crematoria, and since the requirement to install selenium filters mercury emission levels in crematoria have been reduced 85%(11). A study of assessing hair mercury in a group of staff at some of the 238 British crematoriums found that the groups hair mercury were significantly greater than that of controls(12).
Reading that is enough to burn me up!

Me and my mouth! I never imagined my mouth was more hazardous than coal.

In Maine, legislators have proposed yanking the fillings from corpses before cremation.

Getting through the hysteria to any actual science is like pulling teeth.

I'm wondering...

Maybe this is a law school exam question, but if the hysteria over mercury were to make me grind my teeth, which in turn made me emit numerous parts per trillion, wouldn't that mean that the hysteria would a contributory cause of the pollution?

MORE: These days a lot of false or unsubstantiated claims are made, and bloggers are often accused of less than full disclosure. While purely personal details about me are irrelevant to most of the things I discuss, in this instance I have made a claim based on such personal details. Because of the well-established principle that details should be verified in order to be trusted, I'm all too glad to oblige, and provide photographic proof that what I say is true:


That's only my lower jaw; the uppers are similar.

UPDATE (08/26/06): There's benzene in soft drinks! But the levels are apparently not as dangerous as drinking tap water. Nevertheless, that didn't stop a massive lawsuit:

District of Columbia Superior Court judge Mary Terrell dismissed that case Friday morning.

BellyWashers are juice drinks that come in reusable bottles featuring Spiderman, Hello Kitty, Scooby Doo and other well-known characters.

Crockett, the Coke spokesman, said Vault Zero is safe.

"There is no supporting documentation to prove how these lawyers conducted these tests," he said. "Their own press release indicates that they have abused the product with heat prior to testing.

FDA officials say there is no safety concern and that levels are still relatively low compared with other sources of exposure to benzene.

The soft drink industry agrees and says the amount of soft drinks people consume is much less than the amount of tap water they are exposed to.

Maybe if I drink enough Coke it'll loosen some of my mercury fillings!

posted by Eric on 08.25.06 at 08:51 AM


This concern about trace elements will only get worse, thirty years ago the levels suggested to be concerned about could not be analysed, therefore there is no background data, the scaremongers are trying to say the present levels are recent increase.

hugh   ·  August 25, 2006 12:35 PM

There's only one or two actual cases of kids being poisoned by eating fish with mercury. Those were fish in Japan decades ago that were practically drowned in mercury dumped from a factory. The levels of mercury in those fish was HUGE.

If only people could understand it's the dose that makes the poison. Just about everything is poisonous at the right concentration...

Like water. Or nutmeg. Or pepper. Neither one of those spices would be legal if it wasn't grandfathered in. Sort of like how Aspirin would never get past the FDA these days. It's crazy.

silvermine   ·  August 25, 2006 2:33 PM

Anyone who merely glances at your lower jaw will recoil in horror from its mercury-spreading toxicity.

More seriously, twenty or more years ago the Smithsonian analyzed some fish they had on ice for over 100 years and guess what! The amount of mercury in them was no less than those caught today. That put paid to the mercury scare of the time. I guess the enviros figure that they can dust off their mercury panic in hopes that no one will remember the truth. It seems to be working.

Bleepless   ·  August 25, 2006 9:19 PM

You really shouldn't breathe large quantities of mercury dust. However, it is actually my understanding that most studies of the form of mercury found in fish as it is metabolized by their systems is totally harmless at anything approaching the levels we see.

Jon Thompson   ·  August 26, 2006 12:01 AM

Gad, your teeth look just like mine, riddled with fillings. We weren't breastfed, or something.

I remember playing with mercury that fell out of broken thermometers. I think if I get mercury poisoning, it'll be more likely from that than from eating tuna!

Bonnie   ·  August 26, 2006 2:42 PM

Bonnie-My father tells the most amazing stories. My second favorite is the story of how he and his friends used to buy mercury at the drug store and play with it with their fingers.

My favorite, of course, is how he always used to go to the shoe store on Saturday and X-ray his feet.

Jon Thompson   ·  August 26, 2006 3:00 PM

I think I can beat the X-ray story: my friend grew up in North Carolina, where she and the neighbor kids would play outside summer evenings when it wasn't so hot. Once a week a cry would go up: "The bug machine! The bug machine!"

The bug machine was a city-owned truck that slowly drove down the middle of the street, spraying insecticide like a giant fountain. All the neighborhood kids loved to run and dance in the bug spray as the truck rolled by, and nobody ever stopped them!

Bonnie   ·  August 28, 2006 1:16 PM

If you drink enough Coke, it won't loosen your mercury fillings, but it could give you nerve damage.

I'm serious. See, there's this interesting interaction when you drink large amounts of caffeinated beverage and have a mouth full of fillings. "Large amount" in this case means at least a twelve-pack and a quad shot a day. The acidity in the drink starts to leach the mercury out of the fillings, and the caffeine helps to get it to the nervous system or somesuch.

It's very rare, but I know about this because of a case where the guy couldn't hold a pencil by the middle of his freshman year in college. When he quit the caffeine, the shakes stopped and his body started removing the problem... but ten years later, he's still got a numb patch on his leg.

(Yeah, I married the guy. He's done more things to his body...)

Anyway, you have to be ingesting a truly absurd amount of acidic caffeine for this to happen, so no worries. Unless you're a computer geek.

B. Durbin   ·  August 28, 2006 4:43 PM

April 2011
Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
          1 2
3 4 5 6 7 8 9
10 11 12 13 14 15 16
17 18 19 20 21 22 23
24 25 26 27 28 29 30


Search the Site


Classics To Go

Classical Values PDA Link


Recent Entries


Site Credits