Are Mercury Amalgam Fillings Safe?

smile with cavity

Cavity fillings are the single most common restorative dental treatment given to patients in the U.S. today. They work by filling the hole in your tooth that caused by damage or decay, and seal it to prevent the bacteria from penetrating deeper into your tooth where it can cause further dental problems.

The vast majority of cavity fillings given to patients are made from a substance known as amalgam. Although often referred to as a ‘silver cavity filling’ or ‘silver amalgam’, they are actually made from a combination of different materials including tin, copper, silver and mercury. This last component can be alarming to many people, as mercury can be toxic when people are exposed to it at high levels.

What is mercury?

Mercury is a natural substance that we are exposed to in our natural environments. Trace amounts of mercury can be found in the air we breathe, the water we drink and even the food we consume. Thankfully, these levels are so small that even as the amount of mercury accumulates, it has virtually no effect on our bodies.

However, if higher levels of the element were to enter our bodies, it can cause a range of unpleasant side effects including memory loss, headaches and chronic fatigue.

At its worst, mercury poisoning has been known to cause degradation of the membranes supporting our vital organs including the liver, nervous system and brain. So, as a proven toxic substance, why are silver amalgam fillings still being used in dentistry today?

Are amalgam fillings safe?

To address the increasing concern over the use of mercury amalgam fillings, in 2009 the FDA evaluated research into their safety. The studies showed that despite previously believing that the mercury used in amalgam was inert and unable to pass into the body, small amounts of mercury are released in the form of vapor as the filling wears.

However, the level of mercury released was deemed to be less than the average person is exposed to through normal environmental conditions, and as such, the FDA concluded that there was no reason to limit the use of amalgam fillings, stating that they continue to be a safe cavity filling treatment for patients aged 6 years and up.

If patients are concerned, why are they still choosing silver amalgam fillings?

Amalgam is a considerably cheaper than the tooth-colored composite cavity fillings that are available today. This makes them much more popular with patients who are on a budget, and those who don’t feel compelled to spend more on discrete fillings that may not be in a visible part of the mouth.

What are the alternatives to silver amalgam fillings?

If you are seriously concerned about the levels of mercury in silver amalgam fillings, then you could ask your dentist about composite fillings. Composite fillings can be made from a combination of glass and resin, or from porcelain, and are tooth-colored which makes them extremely discreet.

Composite fillings are non-toxic, biocompatible and do not expel any vapor as they wear, making them a popular alternative for patients who are worried about the toxicity of amalgam fillings.