On December 15, 2016, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a final rule requiring dental facilities to use amalgam separators to protect the public from the dangers of mercury waste based on practices recommended by the ADA. The rule was scheduled to be published in the January 24 Federal Register, which would have made it official.
Now, the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is suing the EPA for illegally withdrawing that rule without public notice or an opportunity for comment. The EPA initially expected the rule to reduce the discharge of mercury into publicly owned treatment works by at least 5.1 tons each year, along with 5.3 tons of other metals in waste amalgam.
“The Trump White House ordered the EPA and other agencies to violate the law. That puts Americans at greater risk of exposure to this dangerous neurotoxin, which can do harm even in tiny amounts,” said Aaron Colangelo, litigation director at the NRDC. “EPA’s withdrawal of the mercury rule is not just illegal, but senseless. The rule imposes minimal burden, drew widespread praise from dental providers, and benefits public health and the environment.”
The EPA withdrew the Mercury Effluent Rule before its publication in the Federal Register in response to a January 20 memo from the newly inaugurated Trump administration. The memo ordered federal agencies to freeze all new or pending regulations, including the Mercury Effluent Rule, that had not yet been published in the Federal Register or otherwise taken effect.
“The ADA shares the EPA’s goal of ensuring that dental amalgam waste is captured so that it may be recycled,” said Gary L. Roberts, DDS, president of the ADA, in December when the final rule was first issued. “We believe this new rule, which is a federal standard, is preferable to a patchwork of rules and regulations across various states and localities.”
Mercury can disrupt brain function and harm the nervous system, with negative implications for IQ, memory, language, and fine motor skills. It is especially harmful to pregnant women, babies, and young children, even at tiny levels of exposure. It can enter air and water in the environment through amalgam cavity fillings washed down the drain at dental offices.
Mercury that enters waterways is converted to the very toxic methylmercury and ingested by fish. When human beings eat these fish, they absorb methylmercury into their bloodstreams. Fish consumption is the main source of methylmercury exposure in the United States, and the NRDC reports that mercury contamination of fish stock is widespread in the nation.
“The Mercury Effluent Rule is designed to require dental offices to remove mercury when it is still in amalgam form, which is much simpler and cheaper than requiring wastewater treatment facilities to remove it once it has been diluted,” said Mae Wu, senior attorney with the NRDC Health Program.
Most of the 130,000 dental offices in the United States still use or remove amalgam fillings, and fewer than half of them would need to install equipment to reduce mercury discharges, as many already have separators due to mandatory state programs, the NRDC reports. Amalgam separators cost dental offices an average of about $800 per year.