Dentistry puts a lot of strain on the environment. Each year dentists dump over 10,000 kilos of mercury contaminated waste products into landfills and other waste repositories. Many other products they use are also toxic. Adding tons of toxic waste into an already overburdened waste management system further pollutes the environment. The machines most dentists use also drain ungodly amounts of electricity from power grids plagued by brown-outs. Plus dentists pour over 100 million litres of clean water down the drain each year. Collectively this profession seems hell-bent on completely destroying the earth’s fragile ecosystem all by itself.
But there is a new day dawning in dentistry. Dentists are becoming aware of the environmental damage their profession is doing in the name of bright smiles and healthy teeth and gums. Concerned dentists are beginning to make changes which could mitigate some of the environmental damage. Many others are at least becoming conscious of the long-term effects of their drain on the planet’s limited resources and are taking small but meaningful steps to change their practices. The steps they are taking won’t undo the environmental damage their profession has caused, but they are moving in the right direction.
Eco-dentistry is catching on. Many dentists are using ‘green’ building techniques and embracing new technologies that save energy and create healthier workplaces. There has also been a rise in the use of energy-efficient products and practices. Some dentists are adopting LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) guidelines to make their clinics greener. LEED guidelines are helping with water and energy efficiency, the use of recycled construction materials and improved indoor air quality. Old style buildings gobble up natural resources, produce a significant amount of the greenhouse gas emissions and use 72 percent of U.S. electricity consumed in the U.S. Moving to new ‘green’ building model allows dentists to save money and help the environment.
Not all dentists opt to construct new building. Some choose to retrofit their offices with green textiles and finishes which do not use mercury, lead and other bio accumulative toxins and volatile organic compounds like formaldehyde. Others have made changes like eliminating paper charts, recycling paper and old office equipment, using digital x-rays which don’t need toxic processing chemicals, installing energy-efficient appliances and turning off lights and electrical equipment when they are not being used.
Dentist all over the country are beginning to use tablet personal computers to register patients, send out electronic reminders to patients and electronically submit insurance claims. All of this saves paper, trees and the environment. A growing number of dentists have begun using energy-efficient compact fluorescent or LED bulbs and opening shades on sunny days to save energy. Some have even started using reusable infection control and sterilization techniques and switching to cloth operatory methods. There is even an Eco-Dentistry Association which helps dentists become aware of ways to work with less damage to the environment. It currently has about 500 members.
Using linoleum instead of vinyl or PVC also helps. Linoleum is made from natural, non-toxic elements which do not negatively impact the environment and can be safely recycled. The parking lots of some dental clinics are paved with semi-pervious materials to allow rainwater to flow through into the soil and keep it out of the storm sewers. Some newly constructed dentist offices employ geothermal wells to heat and cool the building. There are a number of other ways dentists have begun to be eco-friendly. Some use only mercury-free fillings while other use water filtration systems to dispose of old fillings and keep pollution out of their local water system. Others use only steam-based, surgical-grade instrument sterilization techniques. These reduce water usage and have no harmful chemicals.
There are several other ways dentists are becoming more eco-friendly. A growing number have high-efficiency heating and cooling systems, use windows and skylights to conserve energy and install solar window shades in treatment rooms to reduce glare and UV rays and save energy by reducing heat transfer from outdoors. Some dentists have even made a commitment to use only biodegradable, non-toxic, chlorine, formaldehyde and dye-free products which have not been tested on animals.
Jonny Webber lives in Manchester, where he works as a free lance writer creating content about health, eco living, and cosmetic surgery .See www.braces.org.uk for more information on dental braces and treatments. Photo by Herry Lawford
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