Research calls for thoughtful waste management in dentistry

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Researchers call for thoughtful waste management in dentistry


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Researchers believe that dental practices should take steps to properly manage and reduce plastic, mercury, lead and silver waste, the most common pollutants produced by the dental industry. (Image: PHOTO FUN/Shutterstock)

Fri. 17. January 2020


CAMBRIDGE, Mass., U.S.: During Harvard University’s recent Worldwide Week, researchers at Harvard School of Dental Medicine (HSDM) drew the participants’ attention to the correlation between environmental health and oral health through the lens of health equity. The team believes that dentistry has a profound impact on our planet’s environmental health, which, in turn, affects oral health. Therefore, it is crucial to correctly manage dental waste.

The team, led by Dr. Donna Hackley, an instructor in oral health policy and epidemiology at HSDM, found that a surprising source of the pollution that compromises food, water and air quality is the international dental community. In a recent summary of their research, the team cited plastic, mercury, lead and silver waste among the most common pollutants produced by the dental industry. “These pollutants threaten the health of organisms and humans, especially the developing young, as well as the stability of various economies,” Hackley said.

According to the researchers, plastic waste is a particularly common type of dental waste. For example, toothbrushes, toothpaste tubes and toothpaste are frequently used dental products that are typically made of or contain plastic and are difficult to recycle. Dental Tribune International has recently reported on the impact that plastic toothbrushes have on the environment and noted that they often get into our forests, rivers and oceans.

“Globally, 23 billion toothbrushes and their wrappings are discarded every year, and in the U.S. alone, the number of discarded toothbrushes is enough to circle the earth four times,” the team reported. “Toothpaste tubes are also not recyclable, as they typically contain an interior layer of aluminum. Toothpaste itself contains harmful plastic microbeads, and 8 trillion microbeads are released into aquatic environments daily from the U.S., enough to cover over 300 tennis courts.”

Mercury, lead and silver also pose a threat to our ever-changing environment. According to Hackley, patient chairs can generate up to 4.5 g of mercury daily and this may pose a serious threat if the mercury is improperly disposed of. Additionally, products consisting of silver and lead are found in radiographic materials, including films and developer solutions, and are of particular concern in countries that cannot properly manage dental waste disposal.

To tackle waste in dentistry, Hackley and her team are encouraging dental offices to estimate the total amount of domestic and medical waste they produce and to determine ways to reduce it. As new, environmentally friendly products become available, Hackley hopes that dental offices will find alternatives to common plastic products.

“The international dental community must commit to preventing and reducing dental waste. Any adverse environmental impact resulting from our professional activities disproportionately affects the most vulnerable populations globally. This is about equity. Thoughtful waste management is no longer just a nice idea, but a moral and ethical imperative to protect the environment and every organism living in it,” Hackley concluded.

A preliminary waste audit conducted by students from the university revealed that primary sources of waste in the preclinical laboratory include gloves, disposable gowns, masks, paper and paper towels.

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