Morley Safer   Letter 20   07-Nov-2000   "Poison in your mouth"
"It was the most irresponsible report on a health topic ever broadcast on network television." Stephen Barrett, M.D.
November 7, 2000

Morley Safer
60 Minutes, CBS Television
51 W 52nd Street
New York, NY
USA       10019

Morley Safer:

I call to your attention the following account of your 23-Dec-1990 60 Minutes broadcast, Poison In Your Mouth:

The Mercury Amalgam Scam

Stephen Barrett, M.D.

More than half a century ago, Orson Welles panicked his radio audience by reporting that Martians had invaded New Jersey.  On December 23, 1990, CBS-TV's "60 Minutes" achieved a similar effect by announcing that toxins have invaded the American mouth.  There was, however, a big difference.  Welles' broadcast was intended to be entertaining.  The "60 Minutes" broadcast, narrated by veteran reporter Morley Safer, was intended to alarm to persuade its audience that the mercury in dental fillings is a poison.  It was the most irresponsible report on a health topic ever broadcast on network television.


Dubious Research

In 1990, researchers at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada, reported on an experiment in which they placed 12 amalgam fillings in each of six sheep.  Within two months, the researchers claimed, the sheep lost much of their kidney function while a control group (two sheep) had lost none.  Newsweek, which accepted the report at face value, described it as the first evidence that the amount of mercury escaping from fillings and winding up in body tissues is harmful.  (Newsweek's article was coauthored by very same writer who had panned fluoridation earlier in the year.)  However, experts in biochemistry, toxicology, dentistry, and veterinary medicine consider the sheep study meaningless.

Two weeks before the 60 Minutes program aired, Dr. Baratz mailed a warning to its producer:

  • The Canadian researchers prepared their amalgam with a method that has been obsolete for more than 40 years.  The resultant amalgam contained excess mercury and was softer and therefore more easily worn by chewing, especially in a cud-chewing animal such as a sheep.
  • The amalgams were placed in opposing teeth, so they would grind against each other. This enhanced the already enhanced rate of release of materials.
  • Because rubber dams were not used when the fillings were placed, scrap amalgam was free to enter the sheeps' mouth and be swallowed.
  • The methods used to detect and calculate the amount of mercury absorbed were not valid.
  • Although the researchers claimed that body mercury levels rose during the experiment, they had not measured the levels that were present in the beginning. The data actually showed that the animals swallowed a lot of free mercury during the placement of the fillings.
  • Their claim of kidney toxicity was based on urinary findings that show just the opposite of what is known to occur in mercury poisoning in humans.

Baratz and at least one other knowledgeable critic also spoke by telephone to "60 Minutes" producer Patti Hassler before the program was aired.  But they encountered a stone wall.

Toxic Television

The "60 Minutes" segment on dental amalgam, which was considerably longer than most of its reports, was called "Poison In Your Mouth."  It interspersed remarks from an American Dental Association representative with statements by three amalgam critics and four patients who claimed to have made a remarkable recovery from arthritis or multiple sclerosis after their amalgam fillings were removed.  The most powerful segment featured a woman who said that her symptoms of multiple sclerosis had disappeared overnight.  The fact that arthritis and multiple sclerosis normally have ups and downs was not mentioned during the program.  Neither was the fact that removal of fillings temporarily raises body mercury load, so that no "overnight cure" could possibly be caused by mercury removal [18, 19].

The American Dental Association's representative was interviewed by Morley Safer at ADA headquarters.  It was obvious from Safer's questions that the program would be a hatchet job.  After American Dental News published a lengthy article about the interview, a sharp-eyed dentist noted that an accompanying photograph showed Safer smoking a cigarette.  Yes, the editor responded even though ADA headquarters has an obvious no-smoking policy.

After the program was aired, I wrote to Don Hewitt, executive producer of 60 Minutes, explaining why "the overnight cure" was a hoax.  My letter also asked whether Morley Safer had mercury fillings and, if so, whether he followed his own advice and had them removed. CBS's director of audience services replied:

Our aim was not to condemn dentists or their use of silver amalgam fillings.  ...  Rather, the 60 MINUTES staff made every effort to ensure that our report was balanced in presenting arguments from both sides of the issue.

Not surprisingly, the broadcast triggered an avalanche of queries to dentists and induced many viewers seek replacement of their fillings with other materials.  Consumer Reports, American Health, Prevention, and many health newsletters reassured their readers that amalgam is safe.  But the program's damage cannot be undone.  In August, Consumer Reports published the following letter:

"My mother, who was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease more than two years ago, had her mercury fillings removed immediately after the show aired.  After she had spent $10,000 and endured more than 18 hours of dental work so painful she once fainted in the waiting room, her condition did not improve.  The pain was outweighed only by the monumental disappointment she and the whole family experienced as we lived through one false hope."

In 1990, Consumer Reports Books published Health Schemes, Scams, and Frauds, a book on quackery that I helped to write.  The book concluded:

In CU's view, dentists who purport to treat health problems by ripping out fillings are putting their own economic interests ahead of their patients' welfare.  The false diagnosis of mercury-amalgam toxicity has such harmful potential and shows such poor judgment on the part of the practitioner that CU believes dentists who engage in this practice should have their license revoked [20].

In recent years, Hal Huggins has also targeted root canal therapy, claiming that it can make people susceptible to arthritis, multiple sclerosis, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and other autoimmune diseases.  As with mercury-amalgam fillings, there is no objective evidence that teeth treated with root canal therapy have any adverse effect on the immune system or any other system or part of the body.  Huggins's dental license was revoked in 1996.  During the revocation proceedings, the administrative law judge concluded: (1) Huggins had diagnosed "mercury toxicity" in all patients who consulted him in his office, even some without mercury fillings; (2) he had also recommended extraction of all teeth that had had root canal therapy; and (3) Huggins's treatments were "a sham, illusory and without scientific basis."[21]  He now works as a part-time consultant at the Center for Progressive Medicine, a Mexican clinic that claims to treat "diseases frequently created or exacerbated by adverse reactions to common dental materials and procedures."


The complete article on the QuackWatch web site at www.quackwatch.com/01QuackeryRelatedTopics/mercury.html can be read for more detail, and for the footnotes which belong to the footnote numbers shown in red above.

My first impression upon hearing your record-shattering 23-Oct-1994 60 Minutes broadcast, The Ugly Face of Freedom, was that it might be an anomalous blunder in an otherwise commendable career.  However, bringing into the picture your two French Paradox broadcasts (which I ask you about in my letters of 21-Apr-1999 and 05-Apr-2000), and also your Poison in Your Mouth broadcast above, points to a different conclusion that your career might rather be characterized by a pattern of setting records for incompetence and irresponsibility  It is a wonder that CBS hasn't been the target of a deluge of lawsuits brought by viewers who believed your Poison In Your Mouth broadcast, who as a result lost time and money, who suffered, and who were distracted by their pursuit of your quack remedy from persuing genuine remedies.

This revised view of your work may help explain why it is that you have been unable to bring yourself to a public acknowledgement of even one of the many blunders that you made in your Ugly Face of Freedom broadcast had you admitted any wrongdoing in the case of The Ugly Face of Freedom, it threatened to open the floodgates to the many other critics who were demanding rectification of your many other falsehoods.

Lubomyr Prytulak