Worried about mercury in your teeth?

The dangers of this treatment and others are often overhyped

Published: August 23, 2015 09:15 AM

Mercury. Mold. Lead. Sometimes there are very good reasons for you to be worried about those substances. But some unscrupulous health care practitioners capitalize on those concerns. “They push tests for mold intoxication or say you need to have the mercury in your teeth removed,” says Anthony Pizon, M.D., chief of medical toxicology at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

They claim that exposure to even tiny amounts of those substances can cause fatigue, heart disease, and other problems. “But those fears and recommendations are often based on little solid research and go far beyond what the science warrants,” Pizon says.

The American College of Medical Toxicology and the American Academy of Clinical Toxicology, identified 10 questionable tests and treatments. Here are three notable examples:

Removing mercury fillings

Mercury can damage your brain and kidneys, and poses other risks, especially to children. But the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration has concluded that the amount found in dental fillings isn’t enough to harm adults or children ages 6 and older.

“You get exposed to more mercury by removing fillings than if you just left them in,” says Jeffrey Brent, M.D., a clinical professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine in Aurora. And drilling to remove fillings can weaken your teeth, which might lead to more expensive dental work.

CR's Take: It’s fine to have a filling removed because it’s loose or before other dental work. And if you don’t want a mercury filling, it’s OK to ask for one made of ceramic or composite resin. But there’s no reason to have an existing filling removed just to avoid mercury.

Did your dentist ever say you needed your mercury fillings removed?

If so, why—and did you do it? Tell us below.

Testing hair for toxins

Certain practitioners suggest testing hair samples for substances such as arsenic, lead, and mercury. The tests can cost more than $100, aren’t often covered by insurance, and can be unreliable because labs use different ranges to determine what levels are worrisome. For example, a study by the California Department of Health found that a healthy person’s hair sample that was sent to six labs came back with six different results. Other studies have had similar results.

Another problem: If metal poisoning is detected, some practitioners may recommend “chelation therapy,” injections of chemicals that bind with the offending substance, causing the patient to excrete it. That technique is helpful in real cases of metal poisoning, such as high blood levels of lead from eating paint chips. But metal poisoning is not reliably determined by a hair sample.

CR's Take: If your doctor suspects metal poisoning, she should order blood tests and, if necessary, refer you to a board-certified toxicologist for treatment, Pizon advises.

Treating ‘mold intoxification’

Some people really are allergic to mold, and in those people, the substance can cause sneezing, coughing, wheezing, and itchy or runny eyes. But some health care providers blame mold for vague symptoms such as fatigue and difficulty concentrating, and recommend blood or urine tests to check for “mold intoxification.”

There’s no hard evidence that mold causes any of those symptoms, Brent says. For example, a study from Oregon Health & Science University found that the symptoms experienced by most people who think they have mold toxicity might actually be caused by depression, tobacco use, sinusitis, or other health problems.

CR's Take: See an allergist for testing and other specialists to rule out the conditions noted above.

How to avoid unnecessary tests and treatments

Consumer Reports has partnered with the ABIM Foundation, plus more than 30 professional medical societies, in a project called Choosing Wisely in which each group identifies tests or treatments that they themselves say are done too often. Read more about the Choosing Wisely campaign, and see a complete list of the reports, including some in Spanish and Easy Read versions.

Editor's Note:

This article appeared in the September 2015 issue of Consumer Reports on Health.

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