Healthy Smiles and a Healthy Planet
When one thinks of major polluters, the mind usually goes immediately to huge factories belching smoke, to chemical companies dumping waste, to oil tankers spilling their black cargo over the surface of the ocean. While these may be some of the most obvious sources of environmental degradation, pollution often comes from more common, seemingly innocuous places as well.
One of the most overlooked examples of this is the pollution associated with some traditional forms of dentistry. Some dentists’ offices produce a significant amount of hazardous waste, from the mercury in amalgam fillings to the special solutions used to clean the instruments. These practices are often relatively small operations, and in many instances they do not know how to, or do not have the ability to, properly dispose of hazardous materials.
The main concern regarding the waste output of most dental offices is the mercury in amalgam fillings. Amalgam is approximately 50 percent mercury, mixed with a few other metals, and although numerous studies have shown that these fillings are safe for the patient, the mercury can get into the environment if the amalgam is not properly handled. Once in the ecosystem, it is transformed by microbes from the stable, safe form it takes in amalgam to the poisonous form that can harm living creatures.
X-ray machines are another source of pollution within dental offices. The chemicals used to develop the images and clean the machines are harmful to the environment and can be considered hazardous waste in higher concentrations. In addition, lead shields and aprons used to protect against x-rays are considered hazardous waste and must therefore be disposed of according to strict government standards.
Additionally, dentists use a variety of methods to sterilize their instruments. Most of these involve either chemicals or heat, and almost all widely used sterilization methods produce harmful waste products.
However, a movement that is rapidly gaining momentum within the healthcare industry, and in dental practices in particular, is aiming to reduce the pollution produced by these otherwise clean offices.
The Green Dental Movement
Mercury-free fillings and digital x-rays are just two of the numerous developments to emerge within the past several years that can dramatically reduce the amount of hazardous waste generated by dental offices. By eliminating the use of mercury in fillings and the presence of chemicals in x-ray machines, dentists effectively cut out most of the hazardous pollution coming from their offices.
However, if mercury must be used in a dentist’s office, or if the dentist must remove old fillings that contain mercury, mercury filters can be used to prevent the dangerous metal from entering the ecosystem. Similarly, x-ray chemicals can be sent to special processing facilities, often at no cost to the dentist.
Furthermore, natural cleaning solutions, such as steam-based cleaning, are making their way to the forefront as an eco-friendly way to sterilize dental tools. This eliminates the need for hazardous chemicals and does not result in the ‘sludge’ produced by heat-based sterilization methods.
Some dentists are trying to become completely green, though, striving to create offices that produce as little waste of any kind as possible. Many dentists use recycled building materials and natural paint in their offices while others have gone as far as to replace disposable bibs and head rest covers with surgical-grade, reusable cloth.
The downside to all this eco-friendliness is that it usually costs more for the dentist, and therefore costs more for the patient as well. As technology improves, however, and the green dental movement grows, expenses should go down. Until that happens, patients may have to pay a little more to get that white smile from a green dentist.
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