When dentists and others within the dental industry consider waste management and related compliance issues, dental amalgam waste and how to properly recycle often come to mind.
This is because just last summer the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) rule that requires most dental facilities that handle amalgam waste to install amalgam separators and ensure that the waste collected in the equipment is properly recycled and handled in order to remain in compliance with the rule and to ensure that their facilities are following all regulatory requirements.
The reason the EPA is so concerned with amalgam is because of one of the ingredients found in the substance: mercury.
Now, the EPA, the American Dental Association and many others have stated that mercury found in dental amalgam is perfectly safe for individuals who have elected to use it as a cavity filling. This is because there is not enough mercury in these fillings to warrant concern. Amalgam fillings, or silver fillings, are perfectly safe, durable and affordable when it comes to filling cavities.
However, dental offices and other similar facilities handle large amounts of amalgam and may generate considerable amounts of waste amalgam. Over time, should all that waste enter community wastewater systems.
How mercury exposure occurs
Mercury is a naturally occurring element, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). It can be found in water, soil and air. In the natural environment, mercury can be released through volcanic activity and when rocks weather away naturally.
But humans are the number one reason mercury is released into the environment. This can be done in any number of ways, most of which have nothing to do with the dental industry. For example, mining, industrial activity and using coal for power needs are most common.
It’s in those situations that a person is most likely to be exposed to potentially harmful amounts of mercury. However, there are a few other ways mercury exposure can occur, including incinerating waste at landfills or even consuming too much fish.
Why dentists must still handle amalgam waste correctly
Mercury exposure can also happen if too much of the element enters wastewater systems, which is why dentists must implement and monitor their waste management practices. This is why separators must be installed in order to capture the amalgam waste and prevent it from entering wastewater systems and eventually drinking water sources.
This can happen if best practices are not followed. Once amalgam (or any other type of waste) enters a spitoon or drain in the facility that does not have a separator that’s operating as intended, it is directed toward the same water treatment facilities as any other sewer or stormwater sources.
These facilities treat the water that they receive and remove any waste. That waste is often sent to a landfill from there. The mercury could also make its way past the treatment process and be introduced into groundwater sources.
However, it’s more likely that the mercury would be sent to a landfill, where it could still find its way into groundwater sources but would often be released into the air through incineration.
How mercury affects the environment
When mercury reaches water sources, it can become methylmercury, which is the toxic form of mercury that causes adverse effects to both the environment and to human health.
Methylmercury can accumulate in the fish found in these bodies of water, which is why there are sometimes advisories against eating certain fish from specific areas.
But this methylmercury is a concern for any wildlife that also consume fish. Birds have been known to show reproductive problems associated with mercury exposure. There have also been signs of organ damage in both birds and mammals that have consumed fish with high levels of mercury.
Health effects of mercury exposure
As for people, the harmful effects of mercury exposure are fairly well-documented. The exact effects of mercury exposure depend on the type (or form) of mercury that an individual was exposed to and how much of that mercury they were exposed to.
Both elemental and methylmercury can cause issues in the nervous, digestive and immune systems, as well as cause kidney and lung problems that are potentially fatal, according to the WHO. Other forms of mercury can cause neurological and behavioral side effects.
Mercury exposure can be especially damaging to developing fetuses, infants and young children. They can show signs of issues with cognitive thinking, memory, fine motor skills, attention, language and more, according to the EPA.
Why dentists must follow the EPA’s dental amalgam rule
Dentists must follow the EPA’s dental amalgam rule because, well, it’s now the law of the land. Following the rule will prevent your facility or practice from having to pay fines and from facing other repercussions.
But this is also a matter of public health.
When dentists remain in compliance with this and any other regulation regarding waste management, they are being a more ethical and neighborly practice. That’s just better business practice.
How to stay in compliance while handling dental amalgam waste
The best way to ensure that your facility or practice remains in compliance and follows all local, state and federal regulations is to first familiarize all staff on dental amalgam waste best practices.
From there, it is often wise to find a waste management services provider that can handle the details of staying on top of those rules and regulations and remaining in compliance.
Partner with DRNA for efficiency and peace of mind
This is where DRNA’s services can be so helpful for many dental practices. As the dental community’s complete regulatory solution, we are experts not only in following regulations, but also in ensuring best practices for handling all types of waste – not just amalgam – that the dentistry profession encounters during day to day operations.
DRNA not only provides cost-effective solutions for following the EPA’s dental amalgam separator rule, but also for recycling or disposing of pharmaceutical, medical, sharps and x-ray waste.
Don’t hesitate to contact us to learn more about how we can help your dental office or facility navigate waste management compliance and best practices.