The Independent on Mercury Dangers

July 2, 2008 at 1:53 pm (Alternative Medicine, Anti-Vaccination, Bad Science, government, Media, Woo) (, , , , , , , , )

The Independent this week reported on a health warning over mercury fillings apparently being issued by the US government’s Food and Drug Administration. The current FDA “Question & Answers” page on amalgam is here and there are previous versions of the page available via’s wayback machine – like this one from August 2007: archived page. The Indy reported that:

Earlier this month, in an unprecedented U-turn, the FDA dropped much of its reassuring language on the fillings from its website, substituting: “Dental amalgams contain mercury, which may have neurotoxic effects on the nervous systems of developing children and foetuses.” It adds that when amalgam fillings are “placed in teeth or removed they release mercury vapour”, and that the same thing happens when chewing.

The section being written about here by the Independent’s Environment Editor Geoffrey Lean is the third question of several on the Q&A pages I linked to. The FDA didn’t “drop reassuring language” in order to substitute the phrase alluded to above – it simply added this phrase to the answer it had already given. No reassuring language was dropped in order to accomodate this phrase and you can check this for yourself by clicking on the links to the current and archived pages. The Q&A page already contained the second phrase quoted by Lean in the above paragraph.

There have been other minor changes to the FDA’s page. Like this: in answer to the question “should I have my amalgam fillings removed”, the FDA page used to state that there were no scientific studies showing dental amalgams to be harmful and nor were there studies that showed removing amalgam would improve health. It advised those concerned about amalgam fillings to see their dentist or doctor. What sort of advice do they give now?

FDA does not recommend that you have your amalgam fillings removed. FDA is engaged in a rulemaking that may lead to revised labeling. It is also reviewing evidence about safe use, particularly in sensitive subpopulations.
If you are concerned about the possible health effects of amalgam fillings, you should talk with your qualified health care practitioner.
Dental amalgam fillings are very strong and durable, they last longer than most other types of fillings, and they are relatively inexpensive. You may want to weigh these advantages against the possibility that dental amalgam could pose a health risk, until further information is conveyed through the rulemaking (see question 7) or otherwise.

The language may have changed, but the answer has not. The FDA did not and do not recommend the removal of amalgam fillings. The FDA did and does recommend those worried about amlagam fillings to contact their qualified health practitioner (i.e., dentist or doctor).

What else does the Indy say?

After years of insisting the fillings are safe, the US government’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued a health warning about them. It represents a landmark victory for campaigners, who say the fillings are responsible for a range of ailments, including heart conditions and Alzheimer’s disease.

Can anyone find on the FDA page an admission that fillings may be responsible for heart conditions and Alzheimer’s disease? Does anyone think that the FDA has issued a health warning about fillings? Or do people think the FDA might have simply updated a webpage that already existed?

According to Geoffrey Lean, “the FDA is now reviewing its rules and may end up restricting or banning the use of the metal”. Can anyone find the words ‘restrict’ or ‘ban’ on the relevant FDA page? I can’t. This is pure speculation on the part of Mr Lean as to what the upshot of the FDA review will be.

The Indy also point out that mercury fillings are banned or heavily restricted in certain countries. One of which is Sweden. This point is made in response to the British Dental Association stating that amalgam is “safe, durable and cost-effective”. Unfortunately, the Indy left out some detail. The FDA page itself actually points out that “some other countries follow a “precautionary principle” and avoid the use of dental amalgam in pregnant women” and links to advice from three of these countries – including Sweden. While the FDA point out that the precautionary principle is being followed in other countries, the Indy does not. The FDA even link to the advice given. The Indy do not. In fact, clicking on the link in the Indy to ‘explore further’, simply provides links to other health scare stories on the Indy website… and the Wikipedia pages for Amalgam, Dental Restorative Materials, Boyd Haley, and the pressure group Consumers for Dental Choice. Those links didn’t inspire me with confidence. The links to a consumer pressure group and a single scientist made me think “Jesus – this isn’t going to be like JABS/Wakefield is it”. The CDC Wiki page has a link to the Wiki page on Thimerosal and the Boyd Haley Wiki page states that “Haley was one of the first researchers to propose that Thimerosal in infant vaccines was the most likely toxic agent involved in Gulf War syndrome and autism spectrum disorders.”

Hmm… the links from the Indy and the general tone of Mr Lean’s piece do seem to indicate that this is just more of the same from the mercury militia. What do other blogs make of it? I haven’t read any that deal with the Indy story on the FDA Q&A page and I’ve only seen one other post so far that relates to this issue, it’s here at Science-Based Medicine: Mercury Must Be Bad – If Not in Vaccines, In Teeth. There seems to have been some back-and-forth between the FDA, the Consumers for Dental Choice and the American Dental Association. The FDA announced they were accepting comments on mercury for a 90-day period prior to considering a regulatory change to “reclassify” mercury amalgams. The CDC jubilantly announced they had won a ten-year battle with the FDA to classify amlagam, that it was a 180-degree reversal of the FDA’s previous position and that the FDA now recognised “the serious health concerns posed by amalgam”. Read the SBM blog post to find out why the CDC statement is wrong, wrong, and wrong again.

Lean seems to have jumped on the mercury militia bandwagon following the crowing of the CDC pressure group. I wonder why the Environment Editor wrote this piece on mercury fillings and health? I would imagine that he would be the best person at the Indy to write a story about the environmental impact of mercury, but is he the best person to cover stories about mercury in terms of health?

Hat-tip to j from the Bad Science Forum for pointing this out: forum discussion.


  1. Martin said,

    Another interesting and vaguely depressing article :| Once again I find myself wanting to know if this is journalistic incompetence, or something more sinister…

  2. dvnutrix said,

    Nobody’s going to read an article about a regular review of amalgam fillings. Put together a scary headline, distort some findings, sex up ‘changes to the language’ and then you have a story that will be read.

    It is miserable. Notwithstanding all that – well done, jdc.

  3. Down for Everyone or Just Me: Use It People, Use It Before Generating Conspiracy Theories « Holford Watch: Patrick Holford, nutritionism and bad science said,

    […] Nov 24: jdc has covered some of the dental amalgam issues and points out why some of the response about historic law-suits etc. is overblown: The Independent on Mercury Dangers. […]

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