Congressional hearing on amalgam wastewater gets personal

2008 07 09 15 04 14 364 Capitol Hill

Representatives from the American Dental Association got a less-than-friendly reception from members of Congress on Tuesday during a hearing on environmental concerns related to amalgam wastewater.

In what news reports described as emotional and at times heated testimony before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform's Subcommittee on Domestic Policy, ADA consultant William J. Walsh came under fire early on when two of the subcommittee members aired "deeply personal diatribes" about their experiences with mercury-based amalgam fillings.

According to a story by the Associated Press, Rep. Dan Burton (R-IN) -- who has held several hearings on mercury in the past -- expressed concerns over some dental work he'd recently had and what impact the removal of a filling might have on the environment. He also talked about one of his grandchildren, who became autistic shortly after receiving several vaccinations, many containing mercury.

Rep. Diane Watson (D-CA) discussed her issues with mercury fillings she received as a child, saying they are responsible for allergies, headaches, and splotchy skin she has suffered from ever since.

Walsh was reportedly "taken aback" by their comments and their emphasis on mercury poisoning, according to the AP. He tried to focus the hearing on the recommendations the ADA had made on proper handling of waste amalgam.

"The ADA has issued and continually updates as appropriate its best management practices [BMPs] for handling waste amalgam," said Walsh, a lawyer who has represented the ADA on amalgam wastewater issues since 2001, to the committee. "These BMPs call for the use of standard control methods, recycling of collected amalgam, and, since last fall, the use of amalgam separators. Dentistry's goals comport exactly with those of government -- to minimize dentistry's discharge of amalgam waste."

Walsh told the subcommittee that dentistry contributes a very small amount of the mercury in wastewater, and that the ADA and its members are taking "every reasonable step" to further minimize that impact, according to a statement by the ADA. However, he also reiterated the ADA's opposition to requiring all dentists to install amalgam separators in their offices.

"Even without separators, dentists capture in their offices approximately 80% of the waste amalgam, with almost all of the remaining 20% captured by water treatment plants before the wastewater is discharged to surface water," he stated. "In other words, 99% of the amalgam is already captured prior to discharge from the POTW [publicly owned treatment works]."

According to a 1997 report to Congress by the Environmental Protection Agency, dentistry contributes less than 1% of the total mercury found in U.S. lakes and streams, Walsh added. Even so, the ADA says it has devoted substantial time and resources to working with government agencies and educating the dental community about amalgam wastewater management.

"Despite the very small share of mercury in surface waters from dental amalgam, America's dentists want to do the right thing and minimize even further impact on the environment," Walsh said. "[They] drink and fish and swim in the same waters as everyone else in their communities and believe that ongoing efforts to encourage the use of BMPs and separators are succeeding and will continue increasingly to succeed."

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