The governments of Senegal, Thailand, and Uruguay have united to reduce the use of dental amalgam, launching a joint $13 million project to fight back against harmful dental waste.
Designed to treat tooth decay, dental amalgam, a combination of mercury and silver-based alloys, is a material used by dentists to fill cavities.
With tooth decay affecting more than 2 billion people worldwide, including 514 million school-aged children, the practice has been a mainstay of restorative dental care for over a century.
However, patients are often unaware that when fillings are removed, the mercury waste generated poses significant risks to human health and the environment. Estimates suggest 30-40 percent of mercury in amalgam enters solid waste streams, accumulating in water, soil, and the atmosphere without breaking down.
Reports identify potential health risks to oral health personnel from mercury exposure, if working conditions are not properly organized.
The Minamata Convention on Mercury outlines 11 measures to scale down dental amalgam, including discouraging use in patients under 15 and in pregnant and breastfeeding women. However, with the dental industry transitioning from restorative to preventive care in many countries, a key challenge is ensuring the environmentally sound management of dental amalgam waste. Technologies used to separate mercury and prevent leakages remain unaffordable for many dental practices, resulting in improper amalgam removal and unintended mercury releases into the environment.
Led by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), with funding from the Global Environment Facility and executed by the World Health Organization (WHO), the project will phase down the use of dental amalgam in Senegal, Thailand, and Uruguay, improve the management of mercury-containing waste and raise awareness on the health and environmental risks associated with mercury use in the dental industry.
“Mercury pollution is a global issue that affects all of us, not least because so many of us carry mercury with us every day in the form of dental fillings,” GEF CEO Carlos Manuel Rodríguez said.
“Awareness of the risks mercury poses to both our personal health and the environment is a vital first step in ending mercury pollution worldwide.”
Estimates suggest that between 3,000 to 5,000 metric tons of mercury are stored in the mouths of people worldwide in the form of dental amalgam, making the waste amalgam created by the dental industry a global issue.
UNEP Industry and Economy Division Director Sheila Aggarwal-Khan said the use of mercury in dental amalgam is a public health issue in need of urgent attention.
“While the Minamata Convention has highlighted the need to phase down dental amalgam, mercury-contaminated waste continues to pollute ecosystems, drinking water, and food,” she said. “UNEP is proud to work with these three countries and a strong set of academic and private sector co-financing partners, while benefiting from a wealth of knowledge from countries that have already phased out its use.”
With the growth of cost-effective, quality mercury-free alternative materials and minimally invasive procedures, WHO Director for Noncommunicable Diseases, Dr. Bente Mikkelsen, said the project comes at the right time.
“Dental caries [cavities] is the most common noncommunicable disease worldwide, affecting an estimated 2.5 billion people of all ages. This project is a great opportunity to support countries and oral health professionals with the guidance and tools they need to accelerate phasing down the use of dental amalgam to protect human health and the environment from the harmful effects of mercury pollution.”
The three-year project will bring Senegal, Thailand, and Uruguay together to strengthen their policies based on international best practice, improving technical capacity on mercury disposal and waste management methods, convening environmental and health professionals and encouraging an enabling environment for the introduction of mercury-free alternatives through engaging civil society, academia and the private sector.
Countries may accelerate their transition beyond their commitments to the Minamata Convention to phase-out mercury amalgam use completely.
“The International Association for Dental Research (IADR) is thrilled to participate in this project,” IADR CEO Christopher Fox said. “Even if we completely eliminate the use of dental amalgam, the profession will be removing dental amalgam restorations for decades to come, which is why environmentally sound management of the associated dental amalgam wastes is so important.”
“FDI World Dental Federation looks forward to sharing the key learnings and best practices from this phase-down project with its global membership, to help them identify what potential strategies could be implemented in their own countries," said FDI Executive Director, Mr Enzo Bondioni. “The project also provides the ideal opportunity to promote the primary prevention of dental caries as being the optimum strategy to phase down the use of dental amalgam.”
This press release was originally published by the UN Environment Programme.