The poisonous element mercury permeates our environment—including our tooth fillings—and, according to Lafayette-based Quicksilver Scientific, it unleashes a head-bangers ball of negative effects on our bodies. Can removing the quicksilver in your system change your life? We sent a writer to undergo extensive dental work and ingest developmental supplements to find out.
To overstate the obvious, quicksilver is mercurial, wiggling its way in everywhere. It permeates the fish we eat. It’s in the new CFL bulbs that light our world. It’s used as a preservative in certain vaccines, as a topical antiseptic and even in over-the-counter laxatives. It’s in the air we breathe thanks to burning coal (hello Valmont Power Plant!) and the incineration of medical waste and trash in cement kilns. George W. Bush rolled back regulations in the Clean Air Act connected to mercury emissions from coal-fired plants (but don’t just blame the former President, the bulk of the atmosphere’s mercury comes from volcanoes). And, of course, it’s in our teeth—and that could be a problem.
“It arrives to the dentist’s office in hazmat containers and leaves in hazmat containers,” says Chris Shade, owner and founder of Quicksilver Scientific (quicksilverscientific.com), a Lafayette, Colorado-based company that tests environmental samples for mercury and produces binding-agent supplements that remove mercury from your body. “You can be arrested by the EPA for dropping your filling on the ground … the only place that mercury is supposedly not life-threatening is in your mouth!”
But mercury poisoning is no joke, especially because we’re nearly all afflicted by the build up of its presence in our bodies, according to Shade—through the environment, our food, and our mercury amalgam fillings.
“Mercury can stop the body’s ability to get rid of toxins and has a tendency to accumulate in our intestines,” he says. “It causes irritation and inflammation of the intestinal mucosa. The door gets shut, so to speak, and nothing can get out. So the system gets overloaded with toxins, both metabolic and environmental.” Referred to as retention toxicity, this state (precursor to actual mercury poisoning) can lead to depression, sensory disorientation, and tremors.
These are not the ravings of some lone conspiracy theorist. As of June 1st, Sweden instituted a ban on mercury that will eliminate the use of dental amalgam fillings, which corrode and emit toxic mercury vapors over time that your body absorbs through its lungs.
It was to fight dangers such as these that Shade created Quicksilver Scientific. “Our binding agent reverses this inflammatory cascade,” Shade says. “It bonds to heavy metals and allows the body to eliminate the mercury. This opens up the body’s biochemical channels and makes normal detoxification flow again.”
But does it really work?
IT’S ALL IN YOUR HEAD
I decided to find out the only way that made sense. I would have my mercury amalgam tooth fillings removed and have Shade’s lab test my mercury levels before, during and after the dental work—this, while ingesting a regimen of Quicksilver Scientific supplements—and observing my mental and physical reaction. The supplements are so-called binding agents, organic compounds such as liposomal glutathione (a liquid antioxidant that goes into cells and helps bring mercury out), Intestinal Metal Detox (a powder formula of silica with some metal bonding groups that keep the intestine from reabsorbing the mercury forced out by the liposomal glutathione) and mixtures of compounds extracted from plants (pomegranate, ginkgo balboa, sea weed, and pine bark) to enhance my body’s powers of detoxification.
Shade’s mercury assertions struck an intuitive chord with me. I have struggled with depression off and on for years. Talk therapy, various yoga and healing practices and diet modifications have had positive effects, but I seemed saddled with an inability to eliminate toxic thoughts, as it were. Perhaps my amalgam tooth fillings were subtly poisoning me and clouding my brain? I also harbor a weakness for raw and pickled fish. Thanks to biomagnification—the process by which mercury moves up the oceanic food chain—large, and yummy fish such as swordfish, tuna and halibut store toxic levels of mercury.
Number 80 on the periodic chart of elements, Mercury (Hg) or Hydragyrum (Latin for “silver water”) is most commonly extracted from cinnabar, a red, vein-filling mineral found in volcanic rock. At room temperature, mercury exists in a liquid state, and it’s named after the Roman god known for his speed and agility. The Romans even extended the name to the red-hued planet closest to our sun, because Mercury moves across the heavens quicker than any other planet.
Mercury bonds easily with every other metal (except iron and platinum) to form amalgam substances. It was used extensively for this reason in Colorado’s hydraulic gold mining operations to bond with the miniscule gold flakes and help the gold sink through the flowing water-gravel mixture. (Curiously, the Roman god Mercury was also the god of thieves due to the metal’s ability to steal gold from the soil.) Before that, alchemists believed that mercury could be used to help transform lead into gold or even mercury directly into gold. Mercury is, in fact, just one proton away from gold (Au, 79 on the periodic chart), and Sir Isaac Newton, died from mercury poisoning resulting from alchemical studies.
Its use for medical purposes is long and varied, including as a de-wormer and to combat the symptoms of leprosy. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart likely died from mercury poisoning after repeatedly ingesting it to combat syphilis. Today’s most prevalent use, though, is in florescent lights. Yup, that’s mercury vapor inside those overhead tubes—even inside so-called “green bulbs”—that gets excited and emits light. Before the practice was banned in the U.S. in 1941, mercury was used by hat makers to separate fur from pelt in order to make felt. It was also used extensively in chemical manufacturing as a catalyst, to silver mirrors and within thermometers.
“It’s cheap, useful, everywhere… and, unfortunately, poisonous,” says Shade.
Gold was originally the metal of choice for tooth fillings but proved cost-prohibitive. Dental repair work turned to mercury amalgam fillings (which also contain a powdered alloy of silver, tin and copper) because of the material’s hardness, durability and price. The American Dental Association (ADA, ada.org) openly recognizes that mercury amalgam fillings release mercury vapors that people swallow and breathe, but the organization contests that the amounts are too small to be harmful. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, children with dental amalgam fillings do not experience adverse effects related to neurobehavioral, neuropsychological (IQ) and kidney function, as has been claimed. The FDA, meanwhile, states that amalgam fillings are only safe for adults and children ages six and above. (This begs the question: What is it about a six year-old’s physiology that makes her able to withstand mercury exposure?) The FDA recognizes that mercury works its way into breast milk and that mothers with amalgam fillings should consult their physicians. So are amalgam fillings 100 percent safe or not?
According to Shade, the ADA used to own patents related to mercury amalgam tooth filling material and is therefore not totally impartial in the matter. Although amalgam manufacturers own most of the patents now, they must pay for a “seal of approval” from the ADA, which also controls all dental school accreditations and started Delta Dental, the nation’s biggest dental insurance group. In other words, the ADA could see serious exposure should liability for health problems related to amalgams ever reach the level of class action suits, such as those the tobacco industry has faced.
“The organization should accept wider swaths of scientific studies,” says Shade.
Swedish professor Maths Berlin, for example, a former chair of the World Health Organization’s Task Group on Environmental Health Criteria for Inorganic Mercury, compiled a recent report for the Swedish government’s Dental Material Commission that lead to the country’s total ban on mercury amalgam fillings. After 33 pages of examination of scientific literature and reports, his risk analysis concludes that, “For medical reasons, amalgam should be eliminated in dental care as soon as possible,” citing reduced medical side effects for patients, reduced occupational hazards for dental practitioners and reduced mercury waste in the environment.
The poster child for this delicate debate, incidentally, is a former Colorado Springs-based dentist. Hal Huggins has railed against the dangers of amalgam fillings since the ’70s and gained some national notoriety in a 60 Minutes segment, which largely panned him for inflating the dangers of mercury amalgam and benefiting from his replacement filling services. In 1996, Colorado went so far as to revoke his medical license for “gross medical negligence,” which Huggins claims was done for “political purposes.” He still prowls events like the annual Health Freedom Expo (healthfreedomexpo.com) and preaches vehemently against mercury amalgam. His book It’s All in Your Head is a cult classic.
MERCURY IN TRANSIT
On May 13, Boulder’s Dr. Stephen M. Koral removed my three mercury amalgam fillings and replaced them with so-called white composite fillings. Koral has done “many hundreds” of similar procedures, and he and his assistant wore giant facial respirators and safety goggles when performing the procedure. Safety goggles were placed on me as well and an elaborate rubber dam was fitted around my tooth so no mercury debris could enter my mouth while suction removed the vapors. The City of Boulder requires air and water filters to be placed on the equipment of dentists who perform this work. The city also monitors wastewater for mercury levels.
“It does not give me pleasure to undo the work of other dentists,” says Koral, who has been practicing in Boulder for decades. He’s also the former president of the International Academy of Oral Medicine and Toxicology (iaomt.org) and has written extensively about the proper procedures for safely removing mercury amalgam fillings.
“There’s a certain amount of anxiety and legality around what I can and cannot say with a dental license,” Koral admits when I press him for his opinion on amalgam. “It’s not legal for me to say that your mercury amalgam fillings are poisoning you. That’s a medical statement. I can point you to the research, though.”
Shade received his PhD at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he invented a mercury speciation technology for identifying organic and inorganic mercury. Most laboratories only test for “total mercury” (organic and inorganic), which only tells part of the story, as identifying what kind of mercury is present allows researchers to better identify the source of the contamination. Most of Shade’s current revenue comes from testing environmental samples (Dow Chemical DuPont and the State of Colorado are major clients), but he’s also developed a binding agent supplement for removing mercury from the body through the intestines. He tailors treatments to remove “inorganic” mercury (from vapor sources like amalgam, which is less mobile in the body and tends to stick to the liver, kidneys and intestines) and methyl- or “organic” mercury (which we ingest from fish and is more mobile and circulates in the blood, binding to amino acids in the intestines and crossing the blood brain barrier and the placental barrier). Worldwide, the majority of new fillings are still mercury amalgam, but, in the U.S., the practice is decreasing, according to Koral. Only about 50 percent of U.S. dentists still use amalgam fillings, he notes, pointing out that mercury makes up 50 percent of the weight of those fillings, “about as much as was used in handheld thermometers, which have been phased out for good reason.”
Despite the fact that Colorado’s Dental Patient Act allows patients to choose what type of fillings they want, the ADA donates lots of money to politicians making appointments to state dental regulatory boards, according to Koral, and continues to disseminate information downplaying the risks of living with mercury in your body.
“[This ADA lobbying], in my opinion, leads to industry-favorable governing,” he says.
Before the dental wok, Shade pulled samples of my blood and had me collect urine samples before and for weeks after. He even tested my breath, which registered off the charts for mercury vapors, compared with his rosy, amalgam-free breath.
After about five weeks of testing, my data set bore out Shade’s theory that fillings can cause people to retain mercury. The mercury levels in my blood and urine shot up after having my fillings removed then leveled out (and presumably came down, although the testing stopped before that phase). On May 12, the day before having my fillings removed, my mercury blood level was at 2.85 nanograms per milliliter of blood and went down to 2.64 over the next four weeks. The inorganic mercury in my urine—reflecting the vapor absorption from my fillings making its way slowly through the kidneys—however, started at .2 then shot up to .6 and leveled off at .4. With less mercury in my body, my digestive tract and cells became more efficient at excreting toxins.
“Remove the source and allow the mercury to dump,” says Shade. “The key here is that mercury can create an inflammation state that limits the ability to excrete. Once the mercury is out, the body relaxes and releases.”
OSHA says that 0–20 nanograms of mercury per milliliter is acceptable, while the National Research Council, FDA and EPA recommend keeping blood levels below 5.8 nanograms per milliliter. My levels were well below these guidelines, but genetic influences make it problematic to identify at what point people start developing symptoms and how severely.
“It’s like shrimp—you can’t select a safe level that people should eat, because some people are allergic, so an average between tolerant and allergic people is an irrelevant number,” says Shade, who is a strong advocate of genetic screening to identify people’s capacities to withstand mercury. “People are nervous about the ethical ramifications [of genetic screening]. But I see people who come through my lab with extremely high levels of mercury that exhibit mild symptoms and people with half those levels that are completely debilitated.”
Companies like Quicksilver Scientific need to compile more complete data sets to help prove the effectiveness of their products, but anecdotally, I can unequivocally state that removing mercury from my mouth—and the mercury bottled up in my body, as a result—has improved my quality of life. Within the first few days, I experienced renewed mental clarity and physical energy thanks, I believe, to not dosing myself with mercury vapors with every breath. I also experienced a lightness and absence of magnetism in my mouth. (For instance, I can now bite silverware without shuddering.) My emotional states are more stable, and I just competed in my first Olympic distance triathlon.
In short, having less mercury infesting my cells has felt like the difference between swimming with clothes on and without. Having shed this heavy metal and cleansed my body with natural supplements, I’m less of a drag on myself.
“Your body did a big exhalation this spring and summer,” Shade tells me later in his typical Boulder-speak. In my words, I pissed poison for 40 days and 40 nights—a physical and emotional purging—and I feel reborn.
Mercury may be ubiquitous but at least it’s not in me.
Philip Armour is editor-in-chief of Boulder-based American Cowboy magazine. He’s sticking to beef and avoiding mercury-laced fish.