BY DAVID WEISSMAN
heart of the matter, according to Dr. Daniel M. Meyer, associate executive
director for the ADA's Division of Science, came just six minutes into
Dateline NBC, the network's weekly news magazine, had aired a 15-minute report May 13 on dental amalgam. The report, tided "Drilling for Dollars," focused on patients who were convinced the amalgam fillings in their mouths were making them sick, or could make them sick.
They wanted them removed, so they visited the office of Dr. Hal Huggins, the Colorado dentist who blames mercury in amalgam for a myriad of diseases, including multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's syndrome, depression and tremors.
Dateline reporter Robert Bazel1 had cited an unnamed survey which estimated that, like Dr. Huggins, 8,000 other American dentists remove silver fillings, presumably for the same reason.
Then again, reported Mr. Bazell, "there are tens of millions of people walking around with mercury amalgam fillings. Are fillings making us all sick?"
"It turns out," he continued, "many major health organizations have investigated this issue. And while they continue to search for any evidence of a possible hazard, so far they have found none."
Then, just six minutes after the report began, Mr. Bazell posed the same argument to Dr. Huggins
"You were trained as a dentist, so you understand what scientific proof is, right?" Mr. Brazell asked.
"Have there been any studies of a population showing that people who have mercury in their mouth have more of any disease than people who don't?"
Dr. Huggins paused, shifted in his seat and drew a large breath.
"That s not a fair question," he answered, because mercury does not create the same disease in each person."
"It's a simple scientific question doctor," Mr. Bazeli pressed.
"It's a very clever question, too," Dr. Huggins replied, "because if mercury gave everybody a cold, it would have been discovered a long time ago."
And that exchange is what struck a chord with Dr. Meyer.
"I don't think there's any debate as to whether or not mercury is a toxic substance," Dr. Meyer says. 'That's obvious. The real issue is that mercury is bound in dental amalgam and it's released in such small amounts that, apart from rare allergic reactions, do not have any demonstrated harmful health effects on humans. That's the issue."
Dr. Huggins, whose dental license was revoked by the Colorado state dental board last May, called this ADA News story "another case of taking somebody (the dental profession) had already destroyed and kicking him."
ADA Executive Director Dr. John S. Zapp says he was relieved that Dateline relied on science as the basis of its report.
The U.S. Public Health Service in 1993 conducted one of the most comprehensive studies on the issue of dental amalgam safety, says Dr. Meyer. The study concluded that "there are no data to compel a change in the use of dental amalgam."
Mr. Bazell cited the study in his report.
Still, Dr. Huggins claimed in the Dateline piece that many patients who came to him with diseases like MS felt better after he removed their fillings. And that, Dr. Huggins said, was proof that fillings were dangerous. "There's some practices that intentionally or unintentionally, give people false hopes, or take advantage of people with debilitating conditions by treating diseases of unknown causes," says Dr. Meyer. Debbie Andrews, a multiple sclerosis patient featured in the Dateline story, had visited the Huggins' clinic in 1991, seeking relief, from her symptoms. Ms. Andrews spent $6,000 to have her mercury amalgams removed, then headed home with plans to fire her housekeeper and self her wheelchair.
"And this is Debbie Andrews today," reported Mr. Bazell, as viewers could see a woman whose symptoms appeared to have worsened. "Her family has no illusions of selling her wheelchair."
Said Dr. Zapp, "You can just imagine the effect on patient confidence, had Dr. Huggins been portrayed by Dateline as some type of savior." :
Two months before Dr. Huggins' license was revoked, an administrative law judge issued a 71-page opinion which said that Dr. Huggins had preyed on patient hopes for "an easy fix to their medical problems."
"Do you remember approximately how many times the phrase 'misleading, deceptive and false' was used to describe your contentions?" asked Mr. Bazell, citing from the law judge's opinion.
"I didn't count it," Dr. Hnggins replied.
"Several dozen. Over and over again, 'mis-leading, false and deceptive,"' Mr. Bazell said.
Then Mr. Bazell repeated the allegations in the judge's opinion: that Dr. Huggins uses the fear of mercury amalgam to take advantage of people with incurable diseases.
"Is that right?" Dr. Huggins said. "Well, you may have one or two Debbie Andrews there who will say that. But would I do it again? You bet I'd do it again."
Investigating further, Dateline contacted all 53 U.S. accredited dental schools and found that all teach the use of dental amalgam. "Not a single one recommends removing them," Mr. Bazell added.
The Dateline report concluded by nothing that "the American Dental Association says it's improper and unethical for dentists to recommend that patients have their mercury fillings taken out solely for the purpose of removing toxic substances from the body.
If your dentist makes such a recommendation, Mr. Bazell added, "hold on to your wallet and talk to another dentist."