Tooth Will Tell

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

Some of his findings, Huggins remembers telling his audience that day, just didn't jibe. "At the close of the program," he says, "a dentist from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, came up to me and said, 'It's because mercury is leaking from the filling.' And I said, 'That's the most ridiculous thing I ever heard.' Well, he let me rant and rave for a while. And then I started to listen."

What Huggins heard was that the Brazilian dentist--Huggins still remembers his name, Dr. Pinto--had learned about mercury poisoning through dental amalgam from his father, another dentist, who as early as the 1920s had been treating diseases such as leukemia by removing fillings. Pinto recommended that Huggins return to Colorado and give it a try.

"The results were dramatic," says Huggins, who recalls that patients with various health problems began to see improvement almost immediately upon removal of their fillings. "The whole office was very affected," he adds. "We gave away all of our amalgam equipment the next week."

For the next ten years, Huggins quietly built a practice around removal of the mercury-laden fillings and related curative services such as detoxification and drug and vitamin therapy. As time passed, he attributed more and more serious diseases to mercury poisoning; by 1980, the largest part of his practice was made up of multiple sclerosis patients. Five years later, a book elevated Huggins to a dental cult figure.

It's All in Your Head was published in 1985. In it, Huggins and his wife explained their theories of mercury amalgam toxicity: Mercury is a proven toxin, and amalgam cavity fillings contain mercury (usually about 40 to 50 percent). Mercury vapor is slowly but steadily released into the body from these fillings as they are pounded, pressured and pushed during everyday mouth activity. Its presence is responsible for a large number of diseases and symptoms.

For interested readers, the book also detailed the complex detoxification treatments available at the Huggins Center, including a two-week battery of numerous tests of blood, urine and hair and electrical current measurements in the mouth. After the amalgam fillings were removed, Huggins advocated cleansing treatments ranging from deep-tissue massage to the use of drugs, some of which--insulin and lithium, for example--are not commonly associated with dentistry.

If Huggins's mercury-detoxification program was exhaustive, it was equaled by his marketing efforts. According to Judge Connick, "The Huggins Center widely advertises a toll-free number where persons interested in the issue of mercury toxicity from amalgams can call to obtain information. Patient representatives, who are essentially sales personnel paid on commission, answer telephone inquiries. They encourage callers to purchase and read [Huggins's] book; provide brochures, position papers, videos and other materials prepared by the Center...and encourage enrollment at the Center for treatment."

Although Huggins was disciplined once in 1983 by the Colorado Board of Dental Examiners (while not admitting any wrongdoing, he agreed that orthodontic care was beyond the scope of his license), he continued to practice and preach at a furious pace. In addition to treating patients, Huggins says he lectured more than a hundred times a year, excluding the summer months. His toll-free number attracted an average of 5,000 callers a month, and he employed fifty people, including dentists, assistants, nurses, nutritional counselors, various therapists, a medical doctor and a video producer.

For about eighteen months in 1991 and 1992, the man behind the camera was Steve Bailey. He would film patients as they arrived at the clinic and then again as they left. Even though Bailey's ex-wife subsequently won a malpractice lawsuit against Huggins, he still considers his former boss a visionary.

"I filmed people coming in [the Huggins Center] using walkers and canes and go out walking on their own--not running, but at least walking," recalls Bailey, who now lives in Alaska. "Dr. Huggins has butted heads with the dental association, but he was trying to prove his point. The government has spent millions and millions of dollars trying to keep mercury out of the environment, but you can put it in your mouth and grind away at it? I'm not a scientist, but I think it's wrong."

Dr. John Osborne is a scientist (and a dentist) at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center--and he disagrees. In fact, he says he was only too willing to testify against Huggins's theories earlier this year. According to Osborne, modern dental theory agrees that mercury is dangerous, but the amount of the metal that leaks into a person's system through an amalgam filling is so minuscule that it is not a threat.

Moreover, he adds, once an amalgam filling is in place, it's sort of like asbestos. Nobody disputes that both asbestos and mercury can be dangerous. But in either case, Osborne says, the danger of exposure becomes much greater when the substance is removed rather than left undisturbed. More than anything else, he concludes, removal is a great way for a dentist to make some quick and easy money.

While Huggins says "more than 10,000 dentists in this country are interested in removing amalgam" (there are 140,000 practicing dentists in the U.S.), most health organizations consider dental amalgam safe. Pointing out that amalgam has been used for 150 years, both the World Health Organization and the American Dental Association recommend against removal.

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