Lawmakers consider mercury restrictions

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(Host) Lawmakers are considering new restrictions on the uses of mercury.

A House committee heard testimony today on a bill that would phase out the use of dental fillings that contain the toxic metal.

But a group representing dentists say the substance is being phased out anyway.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) Here’s something you may not want to think too much about. If you have fillings in your teeth, and if you’re cremated when you die, you may be a small piece of the mercury pollution problem.

It may be hard to believe that the tiny amount of mercury in dental amalgam – that’s the stuff that’s often used to fill cavities – can pose an environmental threat.

But Michael Bender of the Mercury Policy Project says a little bit of the metal goes a long way in the ecosystem. Mercury bio-accumulates in the environment, especially in water. It builds up as small fish are eaten by bigger fish. In 2003, Bender says, an estimated 2.3 tons of mercury was emitted from crematoria nationwide.

(Bender) “The mercury from cremation gets vaporized. It goes up into the stack and it contributes to the mercury build up in our local and global environment and ends up in Vermont’s waters and the fish we eat.”

(Dillon) A bill before the House Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources Committee would phase out most uses of dental mercury by 2011. The legislation would still allow mercury amalgam in the back molars, where replacement material may be harder to use.

Chairman David Deen says the legislation is designed to follow the recommendations of the state mercury advisory committee, which has called for the virtual elimination of mercury in the environment.

Deen says the reason is simple.

(Deen) “It’s a neuro-toxin. It affects the young, both young children as well as other species – loons and others that eat fish and are at the top of that aquatic food chain where mercury continues to accumulate.”

(Dillon) Peter Taylor of the Vermont state Dental Society was leery of the legislation. He told the committee that mercury-free filling material is not always an easy replacement. He says it takes longer to use, and may not bond well to the tooth if moisture is present.

And Taylor says the bill may not be needed, because dentists are already phasing out the mercury amalgam.

(Taylor) “I guess that’s the frustrating part about legislation. We’re actually doing what the legislation would propose doing – and that is, declining in use.”

(Dillon) But some environmentalists think the bill doesn’t go far enough. They don’t like the exemption for mercury amalgam in the back molars.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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