Poison in your "pasta"

Dentist Lilian Lasaten Ebuen is a crusader of sorts. For at least two years now, she has been trying to go around warning people that mercury-based dental amalgams (what is more popularly known as “pasta”) are bad for the health.

One “pasta” is 50-54 percent mercury. Mercury is a toxic chemical—more toxic than lead, according to Ebuen. It causes long-term neurological disorders although the reaction varies from person to person.

In fact, mercury-containing devices in hospitals such as thermometers and sphygmomanometers have been phased out from the healthcare industry, through an administrative order of the Department of Health.

So if we don’t want mercury in simple, everyday hospital devices, why do we tolerate them in our mouths? Cavities in the teeth of generations of Filipinos have been filled with amalgams in our dentists’ attempt to halt the decay. It is even provided free by HMO-accredited dentists. But Ebuen says anecdotal evidence points to poorer total health among persons with such amalgams. People over 50 suddenly become prone to all kinds of illness. They develop Alzheimer’s or Parkinsons. They do not respond well to treatment.

The practice goes on to date. It is cheap, it is popular, and as many people like to say: “I’ve had this thing in my teeth for a long time, and I am still okay!”

And thus, so far, Ebuen’s crusade has been lonely. The Professional Regulation Commission has told her that the use of amalgams is “perfectly safe.” Some have recognized that the amalgams do contain the toxic substance, but their position is that the mercury should stay where it is—right inside the mouth. She has tried convincing her colleagues at the Philippine Dental Association. They are receptive but have misgivings. The practice of using amalgams has been there for so long. And in the absence of any hard evidence to convince them otherwise, why should they break the status quo? Indeed, the present crop of PDA officials insists that amalgams have “no toxic effect” on the patient.

Ebuen is an associate of the International Academy of Oral Medicine and Toxicology, a US-based group that provides scientific evidence to support the banning of mercury in oral medicine. Studies have been conducted in other countries.

“That is just what we need here in the Philippines,” Ebuen says. True— without a local study, decision makers will not listen, much less act. Without a study, she would continue to be a voice in the wilderness.

That voice certainly comes from the gut—a potent driving force.

When Ebuen’s son was two years old, a doctor advised the family that the child was autistic. Ebuen felt her world collapse. She had been wondering why her son appeared slow in talking and walking. As time passed, the child did catch up, and the only explanation Ebuen could come up with for the arrested development was her exposure to mercury as a dental student.

In dental school, she touched mercury and mixed it for the amalgam. Some of the chemical stuck to her watch and her clothes and shoes, some spilled on the floor. Who knows how much of the chemical found its way into her system?

Ebuen’s son is now a high school senior who is a varsity swimmer and who plays the guitar in their school band. And now he wants to go to dental school.

This is why she is in a hurry to talk to the association of dental school deans and other decision makers, to convince them that they should not expose their students to the harmful chemical whose consequences may be long term and irreversible.

She is starting a campaign to ask the Department of Health to ban dental amalgams. Will anybody share Ebuen’s advocacy? Maybe. For now, her goal is to at least get people to listen and rethink old practices—even when they seem to have been there forever.