Tooth Will Tell
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.
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.
Although Huggins says he has endured numerous threats and insults from other dentists throughout his career, his thriving practice received its first real jolt in late 1994, when Huggins and an assistant were sued for malpractice. Filing the suit was Diane Bailey, who'd taken advantage of her then-husband's employee detoxification discount at the Huggins Center.
"I had not had any health or dental problems until I went there," she recalls. "Now I've spent the past three years trying to correct my health and dental problems."
By the time her treatment at the Huggins Center was complete, Diane Bailey had had five teeth pulled. Some of them were extracted to get rid of the amalgam fillings; others were yanked because they'd been drilled out for root canals. (Over the years, Huggins has come to believe that root canals are dangerously incomplete, and he frequently pulls teeth that have received that treatment.)
In the missing teeth's place, Bailey says she received bridgework that quickly fell apart. But when she returned for repairs, Huggins wanted to charge her more money.
In November 1995 a jury awarded Diane Bailey $159,000. Huggins is appealing the verdict; he says Bailey bore a grudge because she'd made unrequited sexual advances toward his assistant--although Huggins admits he never brought that up at the trial.
Despite her dental problems, Bailey concedes that Huggins has certain skills. "He's got a very charismatic personality," she says. "He really makes you believe in what he believes in, because he himself believes in it so strongly."
The Colorado Attorney General's office had been preparing its own case against Huggins since early 1995. On November 27, eleven days after the Bailey verdict, the state began presenting its evidence to Judge Connick.
The administrative hearing lasted four weeks and included testimony from dozens of dentists and scientists, as well as more than one hundred exhibits. To make its case, the AG's office had rounded up eight patients who, in complaints to the state dental board, contended they had been mistreated by Huggins. The state's lawyers described the dentist's work as "a sham, illusory and without scientific basis." Huggins retorted that his was a lone voice of truth willing to speak out against a medical establishment with too much of a financial interest in amalgam fillings to admit the mercury composites were dangerous.
After sorting through the evidence, Connick issued her decision February 29. Huggins "essentially says 'Trust me' to the dental profession and the public but provides no reasonable basis upon which he should be trusted.
"Given his steadfast and longstanding commitment to his theories in the face of substantial reasoned evidence to the contrary," she concluded, "it is evident that nothing will stop [Huggins] from practicing the treatments he has developed short of revocation of his license to practice dentistry."
Huggins still has his believers. Some of them are very influential. "My wife was seriously ill with chronic fatigue syndrome," begins Jeff Coors, president of Coors's ACX Technologies. "We had tried most conventional medical things, and nothing was working. We found out through a friend of a friend that a guy in Colorado Springs believed that there was a connection between mercury fillings and her problem. So we went there and met with Dr. Huggins. And he convinced me that there was something to what he was saying."
Soon after that, Jeff's wife, Lis, began treatment. She started to improve almost immediately. "We started seeing very positive results in two to three months. Now it's so much better that it's hard to believe," he says.
"I was so pleased with what Dr. Huggins did, I said, 'How can we help you?' And he said, 'Would you fund a research foundation?'" So Jeff approached the family's philanthropic arm, the Adolph Coors Foundation, and requested a grant.
Jeff concedes that it was an unusual request for the foundation, which spends most of its money on education and community projects. But it was not the first time the foundation's trustees had listened to a family member plead for money to support out-of-the-ordinary medical treatments.
Three years ago, Bill Coors discovered that his eyes were losing their ability to see colors. After speaking to his friend Chuck Stevinson, the late car and real estate magnate, he began seeing Stevinson's Yugoslavian physician, Rajko Medenica. Although Medenica's unorthodox treatments of boxer Muhammad Ali and patients in South Carolina had earned him the scorn of much of the medical community, he found a firm believer in Bill Coors.
In 1993 the senior Coors asked the Adolph Coors Foundation to help him launch a research organization dedicated to the study of alternative treatments for immunological disorders, Medenica's specialty. State records show that Coors's new nonprofit, the Adolph Coors Medical Research Foundation, received nearly $1 million from the Adolph Coors Foundation in 1994. But the research foundation fell into dormancy after Medenica was jailed in Switzerland on fraud charges last summer ("A Crumbling Foundation," December 20, 1995).
Still, when Jeff Coors presented the foundation with the idea of funding a mercury-toxicity study, its board of trustees was willing to listen. Swayed by the emotional story of Lis Coors, the board ponied up. "They were very sympathetic," recalls Jeff.
The quarter-million-dollar grant had to be funneled through a recognized research foundation. When Jeff asked Huggins for a recommendation, the dentist suggested the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, where he'd completed his master's degree and where he had a scientific contact: Dr. Douglas Swartzendruber.
The fifty-year-old Swartzendruber received his doctorate in experimental pathology from the University of Colorado Medical School in 1974. One of his advisors, Henry Claman, still a professor at the Health Sciences Center, recalls Swartzendruber as a bright and promising student. And Swartzendruber's resume speaks convincingly of academic success and professional respect. He has published dozens of papers in recognized journals, many on the subjects of flow cytometry and oncology. He has also participated in numerous conferences, seminars and professional presentations.
After working at the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory in New Mexico and then at the M.D. Anderson Hospital and Tumor Institute in Houston, Swartzendruber moved to the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs in 1982. He's been there ever since, first as an assistant professor, then as full professor and department chair, and finally, beginning last summer, as interim dean of the College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.
It was there that Swartzendruber met Hal Huggins just over a decade ago. "He showed up in one of my immunology classes," Swartzendruber says. "Before that, I had never even heard of the mercury-amalgam controversy. In fact, up until that point, I, like most Americans, had no idea mercury was in dental fillings. We got to talking, and he explained it to me." From 1985 to 1988, as Huggins pursued a master's degree in science, Swartzendruber served as his faculty advisor. Huggins's thesis was on mercury toxicity; Swartzendruber says he became intrigued that there was so little objective basic research on the dangers of mercury amalgam fillings and so began pursuing the subject himself.
In 1985 Swartzendruber offered a lecture on "Immunotoxicology Associated With Dental Materials" at the annual meeting of the Holistic Medicine Society and traveled with Huggins to Hilton Head, South Carolina, where he gave a presentation on "Immunotoxicological Responses to Orthodontic Devices in Nickel-Sensitive Patients."
That July Swartzendruber also participated in a seminar called "Academic and Clinical Profiles in Dental Metal Toxicity" sponsored by the Toxic Element Research Foundation. According to state incorporation records, TERF's sole director is Hal Huggins. An April 1985 invitation to the seminar noted that proceeds from the $60 entrance fee would "sponsor research in heavy metal toxicity in the Immunotoxicology program at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs."
The program fell under Swartzendruber's authority. But within several years, the professor also was helping out at Huggins's place.
In 1967 Congress passed the Clinical Laboratory Improvement Act, which, among other things, requires all laboratories conducting interstate business to file a report with state health departments. In two separate reports filed by the Huggins Diagnostic Center Laboratory, one from November 1987 and the other covering the period from July 1989 to July 1990, Swartzendruber was listed as lab director.
From 1989 through 1990, Swartzendruber was also listed as lab director for a Colorado Springs company called Compat Laboratories, Inc. According to the attorney general's office, that company is owned by Hal Huggins's brother.
Swartzendruber downplays his time at Huggins's labs, explaining that he merely filled in as a temporary director "for five or six months" until Huggins could find a permanent director to run the lab. "I acted as a consultant to his lab as they were setting up," he adds.
But according to Assistant Attorney General Robert Spencer, who questioned Swartzendruber in front of Judge Connick, that wasn't the only time the professor was on the dentist's payroll: Spencer says Huggins paid Swartzendruber for "several seminars a year." Once, Huggins bought Swartzendruber a plane ticket to California so he could consult with the dentist on the purchase of a microscope.
Swartzendruber contends that his association with Huggins has not affected his commitment to objective scientific inquiry in the slightest. In at least one instance, however, it appears that it might have.
In 1993 Huggins updated his book, retitling it The Link Between Mercury Amalgams and Illness. In the revised work, he cited Swartzendruber's research as proof of his theories. The professor, he revealed, had written "about twenty reference articlesEthat show this relationship [between dental amalgam and multiple sclerosis] to be valid."
In fact, at the time, Swartzendruber had written just one such article: "Adverse Immunomodulatory Effects of Heavy Metals in Dental Materials," a 1990 study detailing how he'd tested three patients' immune systems in both the presence and the absence of mercury fillings. During the hearing in front of Judge Connick, Huggins again pointed to Swartzendruber's paper as evidence supporting his theories.
But after hearing testimony from various scientists, Connick dismissed Swartzendruber's research. The reason: most of the information on which the study was based came directly from Huggins.
"The reliability of Swartzendruber's work," the judge wrote, "is undercut by the fact that it is completely dependent upon [Huggins], who provided the blood samples tested and made representations about amalgam placement and removal" in the study's subjects.
Indeed, one of the three patients--the one who'd shown extraordinary improvement in her immune system after her mercury fillings had been removed--was Huggins's wife. What was worse, Connick said, was that despite the fact that Swartzendruber had written his paper in 1990, he seemed not to know when Mrs. Huggins's dramatic results, as reported by her husband, had been obtained.
"Swartzendruber was unable to refute at the hearing the clear implication that these results regarding [Huggins's] wife were actually obtained some two years prior to the  research," Connick wrote.
As a result, despite Swartzendruber's expert testimony in favor of Huggins at the hearing, the judge paid little attention to the dean in her final decision. "Although Swartzendruber's overall qualifications and credentials are impressive, his credibility in relation to the issue of dental amalgam is significantly affected by his close association with [Huggins]," Connick concluded.
But as recently as two weeks ago, Swartzendruber insisted that his past work with Huggins would have no effect on the science that was to be done with the Adolph Coors Foundation grant. He'd been unfairly tarred by the state's lawyers simply for his association with Huggins, he said. "This was about my credibility, not my research," he explained, adding that "scientific questions shouldn't be answered in court."
Such assurances didn't satisfy Carol Ann Brown, the Colorado Springs dentist. Ever since she provided expert testimony against Huggins at Bailey's malpractice trial, Brown has made it her business to keep an eye on Huggins.
In several letters to university administrators through March and into the beginning of April, Brown complained that, given their past association, Swartzendruber and Huggins would never generate sound science. She also pointed out that the Coors study, which started several months ago, was never approved by the university's Review Board for the Use of Human Subjects--a serious breach of research protocol.
Three weeks ago the university checked, and found that Brown was correct: The Coors study had never gone to the human subjects committee. Although officials explained that it had been an administrative oversight, they also immediately halted the project until the committee could review the study.
And by the middle of this month, Swartzendruber was beginning to minimize Huggins's role in the Coors project. Although a November 1995 UCCS press release stated that "a local dentist, Dr. Hal Huggins, who has monitored blood chemistry changes in mercury-reactive patients for 22 years, will perform the dental services," Swartzendruber told Westword that all that had changed. Huggins, he said, would simply consult on the project, although his labs still would be used to conduct some of the tests. "This study," he said, "will be qualitative and objective."
But as of last week, any study involving Hal Huggins--objective or otherwise--will have to be done elsewhere. "What we've done is get the university out of being the middle man between Coors and Huggins," Swartzendruber explains. "There were some fundamental problems such that I decided the university was best left out of the study." He adds that the Adolph Coors Foundation will pay for the work already completed and that the remainder of the money will be returned to the foundation.
My biggest problem right now," says Hal Huggins, "is that I have quite a number of offers to sort through."
At his office, he'd just entertained producers from Dateline: NBC, which is planning a story on the controversial-dentist-who-insists-your-mouth-is-toxic. The week before it was reporters from ABC, and before that it was another NBC affiliate. Everybody, it seems, suddenly wants to know more about Hal Huggins.
Even though he closed his dental practice last summer, Huggins says he still doesn't have enough time to complete the projects that are flowing his way. And he recently signed on to write a new book. "It's going to be called Uninformed Consent," he says. "It's going to be about the dangers of other dental materials, not just mercury. Practically all the other materials used in dentistry are harmful in one way or another."
The state's hearing didn't slow him a bit. "A kangaroo court," Huggins says. "The things that were put up by our side were thrown out as a matter of course. They twisted everything. The American Dental Association controls the state board, and the state board controls the attorney general's office.
"The ADA tried to stop me because I was finding out too many things," he adds. "But they tried too late. Dentists used to place 1 million mercury amalgam fillings every day. But as a result of our work, we've got it down to one half-million."
In fact, he concludes, even though their efforts cost him more than $700,000 in legal fees, Judge Connick and the Colorado Board of Dental Examiners may have done the world a favor.
"Think about it," suggests Dr. Huggins. "If they take my license away, how much control over me can they have? The dental board may think they're controlling my future. But they're not.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter