Measuring mercury: common test may overestimate exposure from dental amalgam fillings
ANN ARBOR—A common test used to determine mercury exposure from dental amalgam fillings may significantly overestimate the amount of the toxic metal released from fillings, according to University of Michigan researchers. Scientists agree that dental amalgam fillings slowly release mercury vapor into the mouth. But both the amount of mercury released and the question of whether this exposure presents a significant health risk remain controversial.
Public health studies often make the assumption that mercury in urine (which is composed mostly of inorganic mercury) can be used to estimate exposure to mercury vapor from amalgam fillings. These same studies often use mercury in hair (which is composed mostly of organic mercury) to estimate exposure to organic mercury from a person's diet.
But a U-M study that measured mercury isotopes in the hair and urine from 12 Michigan dentists found that their urine contained a mix of mercury from two sources: the consumption of fish containing organic mercury and inorganic mercury vapor from the dentists' own amalgam fillings.
"These results challenge the common assumption that mercury in urine is entirely derived from inhaled mercury vapor," said Laura Sherman, a postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences and lead author of a paper in the journal Environmental Science & Technology. A final version of the paper was published online March 20.
"These data suggest that in populations that eat fish but lack occupational exposure to mercury vapor, mercury concentrations in urine may overestimate exposure to mercury vapor from dental amalgams. This is an important consideration for studies seeking to determine the health risks of mercury vapor inhalation from dental amalgams," said U-M biogeochemist Joel D. Blum, a co-author of the paper and a professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences.
Inorganic mercury can also cause central nervous system and kidney damage. Exposure to inorganic mercury occurs primarily through the inhalation of elemental mercury vapor. Industrial workers and gold miners can be at risk, as well as dentists who install mercury amalgam fillings—though dentists have increasingly switched to resin-based composite fillings and restorations in recent years.
The U-M scientists relied on a natural phenomenon called isotopic fractionation to distinguish between the two types of mercury. All atoms of a particular element contain the same number of protons in their nuclei. However, a given element can have various forms, known as isotopes, each with a different number of neutrons in it nucleus.
Mercury has seven stable (nonradioactive) isotopes. During isotopic fractionation, different mercury isotopes react to form new compounds at slightly different rates. The U-M researchers relied on a type of isotopic fractionation called mass-independent fractionation to obtain the chemical fingerprints that enabled them to distinguish between exposure to methylmercury from fish and mercury vapor from dental amalgam fillings.
In addition to Sherman and Blum, co-authors of the Environmental Science & Technology paper are Alfred Franzblau and Niladri Basu of the U-M School of Public Health. Funding was provided by the John D. MacArthur Professorship to Blum and by a National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health training grant and a Michigan Institute for Clinical and Health Research Grant to Basu.