Brushing Up: The Impact of Dentistry on the Environment

The healthcare profession is one of the less environmentally-conscious contributors to our society. DentSoc’s Dewi Bolger-Moore talks about the impact of dentistry on our planet and how despite the overall need for systemic change, we can also do our bit. 

Being an aspiring dentist and an aspiring environmentalist simultaneously is no mean feat. As many in the healthcare field will concur, these careers don’t lend themselves to eco-amicability. Is dentistry one of the worst offenders? Possibly. Probably. 

Personally, and as a community, there is dismay at the level of waste in dental practice. Tissue, plastic coverings, gloves, gauze. These are just some of the items dental practices use in their thousands daily. It isn’t atypical for one dentist to use 50 pairs of gloves in one day. In these strange, Covid-19 influenced times, there is further movement away from disinfectant-suitable materials and more usage of disposable, high environmental impact materials. While we must acknowledge that many dental practitioners make valiant efforts to cut back, I have no doubt that we as a wider dental community must collectively ask ourselves the question – “How can we reduce our waste?” 

The answer isn’t straightforward. There is no silver bullet, no get out of jail free card when it comes to this. Every little helps! As the dental team we must relentlessly ask – “Do I really need this?” Before you take off your gloves, are you really finished? How many sheets of tissue paper will it really take to wipe that surface? Do I actually need to cover that or will it be touched? These questions perhaps indicate an ethos shift within society where we must ask ourselves before any activity – “How can I do this more passively?” There are undoubtedly essential activities which aren’t eco-friendly, dentistry being one of them, but we need to make them as low-impact as is reasonably possible. o

Photo by Elena Mozhvilo on Unsplash

Perhaps one of the most controversial environmentally impacting waste products in dentistry is the mercury in dental amalgam. Dental amalgam fillings are the dark-coloured fillings, favoured by few patients due to poor aesthetics, but liked by dentists due to their workability. While many people like to question the health implications of having mercury fillings in your mouth, there is no evidence to substantiate this. On the contrary, there is evidence aplenty to compound the environmental damage that mercury can do. Mercury, when released into a water-laden environment (e.g. the waterworks), converts into toxic methylmercury and enters the food chain. Methylmercury easily enters the bloodstream and affects the central nervous system. The Minamata Convention is an international treaty which aims to reduce the environmental and health impacts of mercury and completely phase out amalgam use. In 2010, approximately 100 tonnes of mercury entered the solid waste stream in Ireland –approximately the weight of a blue whale. That’s a lot of fillings. This has been significantly reduced since but in Ireland the average dentist still places 8 amalgam fillings a week. There is certainly room for improvement. 

The general public also has a responsibility to reduce its use of environmentally harmful dental products. Bamboo toothbrushes are very much á la mode and are a great alternative to their plastic counterparts. Their bristles are unfortunately usually still nylon-based, but you can’t win every battle. Not replacing your toothbrush and using the same splayed, frayed, palm-tree lookalike for 9 months is not an environmentally conscious choice. The fillings you’ll end up needing because you haven’t been able to brush properly will be more environmentally-damaging than a new toothbrush. There are now also newly-emerging biodegradable plant-based dental flosses, which offer a good second option to traditional nylon flosses. We use millions of toothbrushes and hundreds of thousands of kilometres of floss annually in Ireland. If you think that little ol’ you buying a bamboo toothbrush won’t make a difference, think again. 

And that sums up the basic premise of environmentalism. If you think something small you can do won’t make a difference – think again. Dentistry is certainly a prominent offender, but it is very much symbolic of a wider shift that’s required within society, a need for a greater eco-consciousness.