This article appeared in The Textbook Letter
for July-August 1996,
accompanying reviews of the high-school book Prentice Hall Chemistry.
An accident of that kind may account for the "Consumer Tip" item on page 173 of Prentice Hall Chemistry: Connections to Our Changing World. Here is the "Tip" in full:
Mercury in Dental Fillings
Dental amalgam is a combination of mercury, silver, and tin that dentists use to fill cavities. Recently, some scientists suggested that tiny amounts of mercury may gradually escape from amalgam and pose a health risk. To date, this claim has not been proven, although it is conceivable that some individuals may be hypersensitive to mercury.
Mercury amalgams are still the most cost-effective and durable type of dental filling. However, researchers are looking for suitable substitutes.
That looks like a quick rewrite of something taken from a television show or a supermarket magazine: A vague but alarming speculation is attributed to nameless "scientists" and is topped with a weaseling disclaimer -- "To date, this claim has not been proven." Unfortunately, however, there is much more to this case. Though the "Tip" may have been written to serve as a pointless filler, it actually is dangerous stuff that can induce students to believe the claims put forth by amalgam quacks.
No matter what Prentice Hall's book says, the notion that mercury escapes from amalgam fillings and damages health did not originate "recently," is not expounded by "scientists," and does not have any basis in science. It comes from the domain of dental quackery, where it has been used for many years to promote the sale of costly, worthless treatments. In a typical instance, a quack tells his victim that amalgam fillings in the victim's teeth are releasing dangerous quantities of mercury; then he convinces the victim that all the fillings must be replaced with fillings made of some other material, at a cost of thousands of dollars. Sometimes the quack uses a phony meter to "show" that the victim's amalgam fillings are exuding harmful amounts of mercury, and he may even claim that the mercury is causing a specific illness.
The entire enterprise is a swindle, and some of the swindlers have been taken to court. Here is a case described in The Health Robbers: A Close Look at Quackery in America, published in 1993 by Prometheus Books (Buffalo, New York):
In 1985, a $100,000 settlement was awarded to a fifty-five-year-old California woman whose dentist removed her silver fillings after testing them with a Dermatron, a device said to measure "energy flow" through "acupuncture meridians." The dentist claimed that the fillings were a "liability" to the patient's large intestine. In removing the fillings from five teeth, the dentist caused severe nerve damage necessitating root canal therapy for two teeth and the extraction of two others.
The most notorious of the amalgam quacks is probably Hal Huggins, who has run a bogus dentistry operation in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and has produced a book titled It's All in Your Head: Diseases Caused by Mercury Amalgam Fillings. He also has conducted some scams based on the claim that teeth which have been subjected to endodontic procedures (i.e., root-canal therapy) can promote various diseases. But according to accounts in the NCAHF Newsletter (the bulletin of the National Council Against Health Fraud), Huggins's fortunes are now in decline. Last November a Colorado jury levied a malpractice judgment against him, awarding $159,000 to a woman who had bought dental treatments from his shop. (One of Huggins's employees had removed nine amalgam fillings from the woman's teeth and had extracted three teeth that had previously been treated by a endodontist.) Then, in February, an administrative law judge issued a detailed report on Huggins's doings, including descriptions of various tricks that Huggins had used in recruiting victims. And in May, the NCAHF Newsletter has reported, the Colorado State Board of Dental Examiners revoked his license to practice dentistry.
Is dental amalgam entirely harmless? As far as we know, it is -- almost always. But on rare occasions, a person may show a transitory allergic reaction when an amalgam filling is installed; about five such cases have been reported in the medical literature since 1920. The reaction is manifested as local inflammation of the patient's gum or the lining of his cheek, and it fades after a few days. Whether it is induced by mercury or by some other material in dental amalgam is not known. In any case, it is a contact reaction, similar to contact dermatitis. It is not a systemic condition, and it is irrelevant to the claims made by amalgam quacks.
Readers can learn more about amalgam quackery by consulting the bulletin Dental Mercury Fillings, published by the National Council Against Health Fraud (P.O. Box 1276, Loma Linda, California 92354).
William J. Bennetta is a professional editor, a fellow of the California Academy of Sciences, the president of The Textbook League, and the editor of The Textbook Letter. He writes frequently about the propagation of quackery, false "science" and false "history" in schoolbooks.
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