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Tooth Will Tell

The state wants to yank his license. But dentist Hal Huggins keeps mouthing off.

The medical establishment grits its teeth when it hears Hal Huggins's name. Dentists, scientists and patients regard the Colorado Springs dentist as a brilliant contrarian or a charlatan, with little shading in between. And State Administrative Law Judge Nancy Connick had no problem making up her mind, either.

Although Huggins has practiced dentistry in Colorado for more than three decades, he has spent most of the last twenty years on a personal crusade. In books and at numerous seminars and lectures, as well as at his bustling Colorado Springs clinic, Huggins has made it his particular business to warn people of the dangers of amalgam dental fillings.

Many older amalgams, especially, contain the element mercury, which Huggins contends is responsible for diseases ranging from multiple sclerosis to Alzheimer's to some forms of cancer. The cure, he says, is to remove the fillings and detoxify the body during a two-week session at his clinic, which can run $6,000.

Connick, however, bought none of it. After listening to four weeks' worth of testimony, on February 29 she recommended that the state pull Hal Huggins's dental license. Huggins, she wrote, "has taken advantage of the hope of his patients for an easy fix to their medical problems and has used this to develop a lucrative business for himself. The diagnostic techniques and treatments offered by him at the Huggins Center are scientifically unsupported, without clinical justification, and outside the practice of dentistry."

On May 1 the Colorado Board of Dental Examiners is scheduled to decide whether to accept the judge's recommendation. Odds are it will: During the hearing, the dentist offered little evidence in his favor, and he did not appeal any of Connick's conclusions.

But no matter what the dental board decides, Hal Huggins and his work will continue. And so will the controversy.

The latest casualties of the debate surrounding Huggins's work were the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and one of its deans, and the Adolph Coors Foundation. Last November 9 the foundation wrote a $240,000 check to UCCS "to fund a study of the possible adverse biological effects of mercury-containing dental amalgam fillings." Much of the work was to be done at the Huggins Diagnostic Center Laboratory, with Huggins himself consulting on the research.

The Coors grant was to be administered by the interim dean of UCCS's College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Dr. Douglas Swartzendruber. A pathologist by training, Swartzendruber has a solid academic reputation--but an equally concrete connection to Hal Huggins.

Since Huggins took Swartzendruber's UCCS toxicology course in 1985, the dean has occasionally veered from his specialty of pathology into the study of mercury amalgam fillings. Not surprisingly, Swartzendruber has usually done so in concert with Huggins.

But their association was not entirely academic. Over the years, Huggins has paid Swartzendruber to speak at his seminars and has financially supported some of the professor's research at UCCS. For a short time, Swartzendruber was the paid director of the dentist's laboratories at the Huggins Center.

When the Coors Foundation study was announced last fall, the close connection between the dean and the dentist quickly caught the attention of other dentists. "Of particular concern to me, as a Colorado citizen and dentist," Carol Ann Brown wrote in a letter to UCCS's Scientific Misconduct and Fraud Committee, "is that the prestige and reputation of the University of Colorado, including the School of Dentistry, not be tainted by the improper actions of Dr. Huggins and Dr. Swartzendruber."

In an interview two weeks ago, Swartzendruber dismissed as "specious" any concerns that his financial connections with Huggins could compromise the Coors study. And on April 9, University of Colorado acting president John Buechner wrote to Brown, assuring her that he was well aware of Huggins's controversial work but noting that the study would continue nevertheless. "A large university will always be engaged in research that is controversial and may seem inappropriate to some. That is our mission," Buechner wrote.

Last week, however, the university aborted that mission. Although work had already begun on replacing the amalgam fillings of several study patients, on Thursday UCCS bailed out of the Coors project.

"Anything involving Hal Huggins--certainly any study, no matter how well-designed or thought-out--is going to be attacked because of his work and his persona," Swartzendruber concedes. "Even an unbiased study with Hal would have the appearance of being biased."

At the moment, Hal Huggins's face is mottled. "I have red splotches all over it as a result of mercury being splashed in my face over years and years of working with amalgam," he explains. "I'm currently undergoing detoxification, but it will take many, many years."

Huggins, who turned 59 on April 10, speaks with a slight lisp, and when he is talking about the American Dental Association and his other enemies' campaigns against him, he begins referring to himself in the third person. For example: "So that's when the ADA said, 'We're going to get Huggins.'"

He received his dental degree from the University of Nebraska in 1962 and has practiced in Colorado Springs ever since. His mercury epiphany came in late 1973, at a conference in Mexico City, where he was lecturing on the subject of using blood tests to diagnose dental maladies.

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