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Objectives: A cross sectional survey of dentists in the west of Scotland and unmatched controls was conducted to find the effect of chronic exposure to mercury on health and cognitive functioning.
Methods: 180 dentists were asked to complete a questionnaire that included items on handling of amalgam, symptoms experienced, possible influences on psychomotor function, and the 12 item general health questionnaire. Dentists were asked to complete a dental chart of their own mouths and to give samples of urine, hair, and nails for mercury analysis. Environmental measurements of mercury in dentists' surgeries were made and participants undertook a package of computerised psychomotor tests. 180 control subjects underwent a similar procedure, completing a questionnaire, having their amalgam surfaces counted, giving urine, hair, and nail samples and undergoing the psychomotor test package.
Results: Dentists had, on average, urinary mercury concentrations over four times that of control subjects, but all but one dentist had urinary mercury below the Health and Safety Executive health guidance value. Dentists were significantly more likely than control subjects to have had disorders of the kidney and memory disturbance. These symptoms were not significantly associated with urinary mercury concentration. Differences were found between the psychomotor performance of dentists and controls after adjusting for age and sex, but there was no significant association between changes in psychomotor response and mercury concentrations in urine, hair, or nails.
Conclusions: Several differences in health and cognitive functioning between dentists and controls were found. These differences could not be directly attributed to their exposure to mercury. However, as similar health effects are known to be associated with mercury exposure, it would be appropriate to consider a system of health surveillance of dental staff with particular emphasis on symptoms associated with mercury toxicity where there is evidence of high levels of exposure to environmental mercury.