Mercury has been linked to such a range of health effects that it’s complicated both consumer groups’ attempts to win Food and Drug Administration curbs on its use in dentistry and patients’ abilities to understand what caused their afflictions. Here are the accounts of several people convinced mercury sickened them or a loved one:
Freya Koss, 73, Wynnewood, Pa.
Freya Koss was stretching her legs during intermission at a University of Pennsylvania ballet performance when she got the first hint something was wrong.
She felt a little dizzy.
It was 17 years ago, a week after a New York dentist drilled out one of her mercury fillings and replaced it using an outdated formula in which he mixed liquid mercury and powdered metals into a compound, Koss said.
By the time she climbed into her car to head home after the ballet, she recalled, she was seeing multiple images. Koss was confused and scared.
When she closed one eye, she discovered, the image cleared. Slowly, she made her way home with one eye shut.
It looked like 10 cars were converging on me and the lights were blinding me. I had perfect vision. I didn’t know what happened.
Thus began a nightmare in which doctors first told Koss she had one of two disabling autoimmune diseases, lupus or multiple sclerosis, and eventually settled on the latter. Koss had lost friends to each, and her first thought was that her life was over.
Then she had another thought.
“I said, ‘I’m going to find out what did this to me, because you don’t get MS in a day,’” Koss recalled. After buying an eye patch, she went on the Internet.
At 3:20 a.m. on her fifth day of research, she said, she sat thunderstruck. She’d found a posting by a British woman who had two mercury fillings drilled out. A week later, the woman wrote, she developed double vision.
Over the Internet, Koss connected with groups of dentists and patients campaigning to end the use of mercury in dentistry. The more she learned, the more convinced she grew that she had been “acutely mercury poisoned.”
Then one morning she awoke and could barely open her eyelids. A neuro-ophthalmologist diagnosed her with myasthenia gravis, a rare autoimmune disease that can weaken the muscles in a person’s throat and eyes.
Within months, Koss had the first three of a dozen mercury fillings removed from her mouth, and later, the remainder. Gradually, tests showed, the markers for multiple sclerosis disappeared; over 3½ years, her eye problems diminished, she said.
Also disappearing were bouts of depression that she’d fought for a decade. Sometimes she had become suicidal.
As she healed, Koss took on another persona. She became a crusader for a ban on mercury in dentistry, carrying a sign while protesting outside a 2005 American Dental Association convention in Philadelphia.
She showed up at Food and Drug Administration and congressional hearings on the issue.
She proposed and lobbied the Philadelphia City Council to approve an ordinance requiring the city’s dentists to give patients copies of a brochure warning of the hazards of mercury fillings. In 2009, it became law.
On her own, Koss sued the dentist who implanted the mercury filling a week before she took ill, and then found a lawyer to take the case – no easy task. She fought in court for 15 years, assisting her attorney in obtaining $50,000 in financing to prepare for a trial, she said. Last year, she won a rare, if not unprecedented, settlement, terms of which are confidential.
Koss has networked with other sick dental patients across the country to battle the FDA.
“I am a warrior,” she says.
Ruth Morris, 64, Jacksonville, N.C.
Ruth Morris knew she was at risk after learning a few years ago about chemical contamination of the drinking water at the U.S. Marines Corps’ Camp Lejeune, N.C., where she worked for more than 16 years. But she said she’d never had any physical problems – not even a cavity – until her dentist drilled out decay from two of her teeth in 2010 and filled the holes with a mercury compound.
By 2012, Morris’ tongue had turned black, she couldn’t get rid of the metallic taste in her mouth and she was experiencing balance and vision problems, she said. Finally, she checked into a hospital emergency room. A neurologist told her she’d had a mini stroke. Hospitalized for three nights, she was put on heavy steroids to address vascular hypertension, Morris said.
When her dentist saw the dark tongue during a checkup in 2013, she offered repeatedly to pull the molar that held the bigger filling, Morris said.
“I wished I’d have said yes,” she said, adding that she now suspects the dentist thought mercury could be causing her ailments.
In late June 2013, Morris developed sores in her upper mouth and breathing problems that led to another emergency room visit. Convinced the fillings were the culprit, she asked her dentist to pull both teeth. But she was persuaded to instead have only the large one extracted and to replace the mercury filling in the smaller cavity with composite resins, she recalled. During the drilling, Morris said, the dentist took few precautions to protect her from mercury vapor and particles.
I was healthy as a horse. I’m really having difficulties. . . . I’m getting sicker and sicker.
Soon, she was back in the hospital, this time with a serious lung ailment. This time, she said, doctors found high levels of both mercury and lead in her blood (researchers say the two interact and can cause even worse health effects). In 2014, Morris had her cancerous thyroid and then her gall bladder removed. A digestive problem sent her weight plummeting from 125 pounds to 92 pounds, though she said she rebounded to 110 pounds once what she calls the “absolute poison” was out of her mouth.
Morris said she’s still sick.
“I don’t do anything I used to do at all,” she said. “I totally am not the same person I was.”
Linda Foster, 69, Fresno, Calif.
They filled Linda Foster’s molars with mercury when she was 19.
“I think they put 32 fillings in 19 teeth,” she recalled.
In her early 20s, she experienced piercing migraine headaches. By her 30s, she said, she was fighting bouts of vertigo, everything swirling around her.
“It slams into you and you think, ‘Life is over as I know it,’” she said.
As a young woman, she had been a skier and a figure skater. When she reached her 50s, she said, she was so drained of energy she sometimes took half a dozen naps a day. Her memory also was faltering.
I’d go through episodes where I couldn’t remember whether I had locked the door and fed the dog.
“It makes you pretty much useless, unemployable, nonfunctioning,” Foster said. “I was pushing 90, is the way I was feeling about 10 years ago.”
At the time, she was 59.
She probably never would have connected her teeth to her declining health if she hadn’t had lunch with a co-worker in Orange County, Calif., around 1990, she said.
“She told me what she’d gone through with something like multiple sclerosis,” Foster said. “She had her teeth redone, and she got her health back.”
Foster’s health, though, was deteriorating, with mercury levels in her blood “off the charts,” she said. She turned suicidal but couldn’t kill herself.
Then she read a book about the health risks of mercury fillings and suspected they could be her problem. In 2003 and 2004, a couple of Fresno dentists safely drilled out her silver fillings, a few at a time, always putting rubber dams around each tooth as it was drilled , as well as sucking away the escaping toxins to shield her, she said. The mercury removal cost about $7,000, she said.
She took detoxifying supplements for about two years, she said, and finally started feeling better.
Blanche Grube, a dentist in Scranton, Pa.
Throughout her childhood, Blanche Grube was channeled into remedial reading groups, starting in third grade. In college, she recalled, she majored in music because she couldn’t read.
“I couldn’t finish a sentence,” she said.
She went to dental school, she said, partly because a friend told her that dentists “don’t need to read that much.”
I got my job as a dental assistant and the young dentist convinced me I really should go to dental school. I said, ‘Ira, I have a secret to tell you. I can’t read.’
Grube said it never occurred to her that there might be a connection between her reading deficiency and the mercury fillings in her teeth – or that it might threaten her life.
In the early 1990s, she was “blown away” by an article that a patient handed her about the risks of dental mercury, she said. Grube checked the bibliography to assess the academic credibility of its authors. All were established professionals in fields from physiology to chemistry.
Soon, Grube was among 60 dentists in a class in Colorado Springs, Colo., about the risks of mercury fillings, taught by the late Hal Huggins, a confrontational guru who led the early push for mercury-free dentistry. Before the lessons began, she said, Huggins arranged for all students to have their blood drawn, to see whether they had been sickened by routinely inhaling mercury vapors in their practices.
On the fourth day, she said, Huggins told the class, ‘We’re going to look at your blood chemistry to see just how sick you guys are, because you’re taking out (patients’) mercury fillings all the time unprotected.”
Grube said her test results were the first to be opened. Her white blood cell count was in the ozone, she said. Doctors at Colorado Springs General Hospital advised her that she was in the early stages of “chronic metablastic leukemia.” She said Huggins speculated that the illness most likely developed from infections in one or more of the five teeth on which she’d had root canals – deep drilling to remove the pulp and nerve from a decayed or infected tooth.
Grube knew what she had to do.
In January 1993, she had all 18 of her mercury fillings safely removed. An oral surgeon extracted the five teeth in which she had root canals.
Her white cell count fell and her signs of blood cancer disappeared, said Grube, who now devotes her practice to safely removing mercury fillings for patients from around the world.
“The brain fog in my head lifted,” she said. “Now I can read. I’m a speed reader. My IQ has gone up!”
Holly Hruska, 38, Frankfort, Ky.
Holly Hruska said she had multiple mercury fillings placed in her mouth when she was 5 or 6 years old. As she got older, there were more cavities, the holes patched with more compounds containing the toxic chemical.
She blames the fillings for sending her life into a tailspin for over 30 years.
“As I started to get older, I would just get sicker and sicker,” said Hruska, who still managed to earn two degrees from the University of Kentucky. “I felt there was something really wrong with me. I was being ignored. “
Hruska said some people have told her she has anorexia – an eating disorder characterized by low body weight.
“I’ve been told that anorexia is directly related to mercury,” Hruska said. “I had a metal taste in my mouth. It was affecting my taste buds.”
“I had over 100 symptoms,” she said, including being diagnosed with not-yet-curable diseases: lupus, a debilitating autoimmune disease, and gastroparesis, a form of paralysis that prevents the stomach from doing its job.
“I had horrible shaking,” Hruska said. “I had horrible brain fog. I used to have ringing in the ears. I have a very beat up immune system. I get headaches all the time.”
When she turned 27, she had heR mercury fillings replaced with composite resins, but the dentist who drilled out the old fillings didn’t guard against her getting a big shot of mercury vapor and drilled particles, Hruska said.
She became so ill she was bedridden and her weight dropped to 78 pounds.
“I just about died,” Hruska said.
After she recovered, she said, the symptoms of lupus and gastroparesis disappeared, and her fingernails, which had turned wavy, grew straight again.
Some of her illnesses persist: depression, chronic fatigue, insomnia, a painful muscle syndrome known as fibromyalgia, for which she draws disability benefits, and occasional nausea, vomiting and appetite loss.
Hruska is bitter.
“I don’t think I should be poisoned as a child and have to live a life like this on disability,” Hruska said.
Paul Hewitt, 73, Modesto, Calif.
Paul Hewitt married a full-blooded Swede, but he was on his own trip through Sweden volunteering with a Christian charity when he learned that her teeth might be making her sick.
Hewitt, 73, a retired insurance salesman who lives in Modesto, Calif., recalled that his late wife, Carolyn, was miserable and partly disabled in the early 1990s, struggling with what doctors diagnosed as lupus, an autoimmune disorder.
“Her glands were swollen, she had a rash on her face, achy joints,” Hewitt said. “The rash would flare up. She was achy and tired.”
It had persisted for seven to 10 years, he said, when he visited Sweden en route to help modernize a former Soviet school in what is now Estonia.
Before departing, he said, he learned that the Swedes were phasing out the use of mercury dental fillings because of their potential health effects.
One of Carolyn’s best friends helped to cinch the decision, saying she improved her health by having her mercury fillings removed.
“Her friend told her she might get some positive results,” Hewitt said. “We went for it..”
In 1994, the couple headed to the office of one of the earliest anti-mercury dentists on the West Coast, Jim Adams of Los Gatos, Calif., whom they paid several thousand dollars to safely remove silvery fillings from all four quadrants of Carolyn’s mouth, Hewitt recalled.
“The lupus just disappeared . . . once the load of the poisoning mercury was taken off,” he said. “After that, her whole health profile changed.”
Hewitt said his wife was never really ill after that, except for the disease that took her life. On Dec. 31, 2006, Hewitt said, she died of lung cancer.