updated 9/7/2006 10:56:04 AM ET 2006-09-07T14:56:04

Consumer activists on Thursday pressed for at least a partial ban on dentists’ use of a mercury-laden amalgam to fill cavities.

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They made their demand as a Food and Drug Administration panel of experts met to review a government report that concluded silver dental fillings aren’t dangerous, even though they expose patients to low levels of toxic mercury.

The FDA asked the panel to weigh in on whether the study — a review of 34 recent research studies — reflects current knowledge about the risks associated with the fillings. The FDA did not ask the panelists to discuss a ban.

The study found “no significant new information” that would change the agency’s earlier determination that mercury-based fillings don’t harm patients, except in rare cases where they have allergic reactions.

Consumer groups opposed to the use of mercury in dentistry dispute that conclusion. The groups petitioned the FDA earlier in the week for an immediate ban on use of the cavity-filler in pregnant women. On Thursday, they pressed further.

“Do the right, decent, honorable and God-loving thing: There needs to be an immediate embargo on mercury fillings for everyone, or at least pregnant women and children, because they are our future,” said Michael Burke, who blamed mercury fillings for the early onset Alzheimer’s disease diagnosed in his wife, Phyllis, in 2004.

Amalgam fillings, also called silver fillings, by weight are about 50 percent mercury, joined with silver, copper and tin. Dentists have used amalgam to fill cavities since the 1800s. Today, tens of millions of Americans receive mercury fillings each year. Amalgam use has begun to taper off, though, with many doctors switching to resin composite fillings that blend better with the natural coloring of teeth.

Ban bad for oral health?
However, such “cosmetic” fillings can’t always be substituted for amalgam, including in cases where dentists have to place large fillings in the back teeth, Dr. Ronald Zentz, of the American Dental Association, said in a recent interview.

On Thursday, dentist Howard Bailit said he and his colleagues at the University of Connecticut studied the impact of a ban on mercury fillings and found it would increase costs, reduce the number of cavities filled and have an overall negative effect on oral health.

“Our recommendation is do not ban the use of dental amalgams,” Bailit said.

With amalgam fillings, mercury vapor is released when patients chew and brush their teeth. Significant levels of mercury exposure can cause permanent damage to the brain and kidneys. Fetuses and children are especially sensitive to its harmful effects.

Scientists have found that mercury levels in the blood, urine and body tissues rise the more mercury fillings a person has. However, even among people with numerous fillings, exposure levels are well below those known to be harmful, the FDA report said.

The two-day, joint meeting of FDA experts on dental products and neurology concludes late Thursday.

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