Exposure to alkaline substances can damage teeth

A Swedish study has found that strong alkaline substances can damage teeth. Researchers noted that substances with high pH values -- such as commercial cleaning substances and some paint removers -- can destroy parts of the organic content of the tooth, leaving the enamel more vulnerable.

The study was carried out at the Department of Occupational and Environmental Medicine at the Sahlgrenska Academy and published in the Journal of Dentistry (published online Sep.23).

Alkaline degreasers are used in the food industry to clean professional kitchens, among other things, but are also common in car care industry and to remove vandalism painting.

The study exposed extracted teeth to degreasers and other alkaline solutions. Enamel samples were then examined with a scanning electron microscope and analyzed using various spectroscopic methods. The researchers found that organic material on the surface of the tooth dissolves rapidly. The results indicate that the organic components of the enamel are also affected, as the enamel becomes more porous.

"However, we were not able to show that alkaline substances change the composition of the minerals that constitute the main component of enamel," said Fabian Taube, occupational hygienist and one of the researchers involved in the study. "In that sense, it differs from the effects of exposure to acids."

It was occupational injuries from reconditioning of cars that attracted the attention of the researchers. The common denominator was exposure to an alkaline degreaser that was sprayed onto various parts of the cars. The spray turned out to have a pH value of between 12 and 14, which is very alkaline.

"Exposure to this substance damaged the surface of the teeth resulting in "flaked" enamel," said Jörgen Norén, professor/senior dental officer at the Sahlgrenska Academy. "This type of damage markedly increases the risk of caries and other dental damage."

Occupational damage to teeth from exposure to alkaline substances is probably not as common as damage from acidic substances, but it becomes a problem when employers fail to inform employees of the risks or do not give them access to the right protective equipment, Taube noted.

"The study shows that exposure to alkaline substances can result in damaged teeth, but that the process is different to that caused by exposure to acidic drinks or acidic industrial vapors," he said.

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