United Nations — A vibrant global campaign to ban the use of mercury in dentistry is shifting direction: moving from Europe to the developing world.
Charlie Brown, Attorney & President of the World Alliance for Mercury-Free Dentistry, an organization which is spearheading the campaign, told African and Asian delegates at a meeting in Geneva late September: "When you return to your home countries, please do as the European Union has done: phase out amalgam for children now, for one simple reason: The children of your nation are equally important as the children of Europe."
Billed as the Conference of Parties (COP1), the Geneva meeting was a gathering of signatories and ratifiers of the Minamata Convention, a legally-binding landmark treaty aimed at protecting "human health and the environment" from mercury releases.
The treaty, described as the first new environmental agreement in over a decade and which entered into force August 16, has been signed by 128 of the 193 UN member states and ratified by 84 countries, which are now legally obliged to comply with its provisions.
In an interview with IPS, Brown said: "We made clear our short-term goal in the march toward mercury-free dentistry: ban amalgam for children - worldwide and quickly - as the European Union has done."
In his opening statement to the plenary session of COP1, he cited major progress phasing down amalgam in nations across Africa and Asia.
Immediately after COP1, the World Alliance intensified its Africa campaign. "I went to five nations in West Africa and Central Africa: Côte d'Ivoire, Togo, Bénin, Cameroon, and Nigeria," Brown told IPS.
In Geneva, the World Alliance fielded a talented team from across the globe, including a coalition of environmental, dental, and consumer non-governmental organisations (NGOs) - each with a record of major achievements in its home country.
The progress in Africa was described as exceptional. Nigeria, being the economic and population colossus of Africa, got the attention it deserves, said Brown.
The World Alliance for Mercury-Free Dentistry, working with the NGO SEDI of Benin City, Nigeria, held a workshop for Edo State in the South-South region.
The workshop concluded with the Edo State Stakeholder Resolution calling for amalgam use to cease in Edo State, Nigeria, on 1 July 2018--specifically for children under 16, for pregnant women, and for nursing mothers.
Tom Aneni of SEDI said: "The Edo State Stakeholder Resolution is a model for Nigeria and for the continent. For the children of Africa, we must do, as we already decided in this state in Nigeria's South-South: No amalgam for children, no amalgam for pregnant women, no amalgam for breastfeeding women."
Other recommendations include "updating dental schools training curriculum to emphasize mercury-free dentistry and implementation of a phase down work plan. This must also include legislative review and development of guidelines, gathering baseline data and developing the national overview".
The participants also called for an urgent need for Nigeria to domesticate the Minamata Convention as soon as possible.
The meeting in Nigeria also declared that "mercury is a chemical of global concern owing to its long range atmospheric transport, its persistence in the environment once anthropogenically introduced and its ability to bio-accumulate in ecosystems.
Leslie Adogame of the NGO SRADev, Lagos, pointed to the paradigm shift at Nigerian dental colleges.
"The major dental schools have reversed their teaching, stressing the teaching of mercury-free fillings, which are non-polluting and tooth-friendly, in contrast to dental amalgam. The dental colleges are instructing the dental students that amalgam has no future in Africa."
The English-language daily, the Guardian of Nigeria, reported that stakeholders from the health sector, media, civil societies, called on governments at all levels to end the use of dental amalgam, a liquid mercury and metal alloy mixture used to fill cavities caused by tooth decay in children under 16 years, regnant and breast feeding women. The chemical is said to be injurious to health.
They therefore advocated that this should become a government policy that should take effect from July 1 2018.
The decision was reached at a stakeholders workshop on phase down of dental amalgam organised by the Sustainable Environment Development Initiative (SEDl), where its Executive Director, Tom Aneni, said exposure to mercury could harm the brain, heart, kidneys, lungs, cardiovascular and immune systems in women, unborn children and infants.
Meanwhile, Cameroon has been witnessing significant changes towards mercury-free dentistry not only in cities like Yaoundé but in more rural areas too, such as the Far North Region.
Gilbert Kuepouo of the NGO CREPD said, "Cameroon civil society - comprising dentists, consumers, hospitals, dental schools - is ready for mercury-free dentistry. Our goal is nothing less than the end of amalgam in Cameroon - a goal that is now realistic."
Dominique Bally of the African Center for Environmental Health took Brown through three francophone West African nations: Côte d'Ivoire, Togo, and Bénin, where they had meetings with top officials of the three environmental ministries, toured dental colleges, consulted with a top military dentist, and met with NGO leaders.
Bally said, "To donate, sell, or otherwise bring amalgam to Africa is not helping the people of our region - it is dumping a neurotoxin into our environment and our bodies. Africans are tired to see their continent being seen as the world dumping site".
The World Alliance President, together with the President of the African Centre for Environmental Health, Dominique Bally, an Ivoirian, are partnering with environmental NGOs, Les Amis de la Terre in Togo and with GAPROFFA in Benin.
While delivering his opening speech at COP 1, Brown saluted the work of the Africa region and of the African governments in the march toward mercury-free dentistry.
He said, "The Abuja Declaration for Mercury-Free Dentistry for Africa sets the pace. The government of Mauritius ended amalgam use for children. Dental schools from "Cote d'Ivoire and Nigeria across to Tanzania and Kenya have made major curriculum shifts to educate this generation of dentists."
Meanwhile, the Minamata Convention holds critical obligations for all 84 State Parties to ban new primary mercury mines while phasing out existing ones and also includes a ban on many common products and processes using mercury, measures to control releases, and a requirement for national plans to reduce mercury in artisanal and small-scale gold mining.
In addition, it seeks to reduce trade, promote sound storage of mercury and its disposal, address contaminated sites and reduce exposure from this dangerous neurotoxin.