Q: After years of not flossing, gargling or really giving a toss in general about the state of my teeth, a couple of recent root canals and a nasty case of gingivitis have transformed me into a dental care devotee. Call me crazy, but I really can’t get enough of my regular dentist, cosmetic dentist and my periodontist … I truly look forward to my monthly check-ups. And my mouth? It’s clean and lean with chewing-gum-commercial-worthy-chompers white as virgin snow.
In addition to dental hygiene, another passion of mine is eco-living … and I can’t help but wonder if these two seemingly dissimilar interests ever intersect. During each visit to one of my beloved dentists, I notice all the water and energy that’s required and the waste that’s generated by my 40 minutes in the chair. I always leave smiling but inside I wonder: Can a trip to the dentist be more green? Are there such things as eco-friendly dentists? Wondering if you had any leads …
Sustainability and smiles,
-- Susan, Santa Fe, NM
Hey Susan (or shall I call you Crazy?),
Wow. You might be the first person I’ve ever encountered who truly enjoys trips to the dentist. I was a terror-in-the-dental-chair as a kid and not so much has changed for me as an adult; I just tend to groan and grimace more than cry and thrash around these days. But hey, it’s a must-do and I’m glad to hear you are so enthusiastic about it.
So, to answer your question, yes, so-called “green” dentistry does exist, but it’s not exactly the norm quite yet. Here’s the thing: When thinking of waste, water and energy conservation in a dental office, the eco-brains of many patients switch off. I mean, the dentist is one of those places where safety trumps sustainability. I wouldn’t want to be sitting in the chair when my dentist announces: “To reduce water use, we aren’t going to be washing or sanitizing this dental explorer,” or “in an effort to decrease our waste flow, I’ll be reusing this thread of floss,” or “we’re cutting back on energy bills … let’s skip this X-ray even though I see something seriously wrong in there.”
So you see, modern dentistry relies on practices that aren’t exactly eco-friendly. However, a small but growing number of dentists are making efforts to practice environmentalism without sacrificing your safety and comfort. Some dental offices use reclaimed and sustainable building materials and furnishings, no-VOC paints and finishes, energy-efficient lighting, recycled paper office supplies, nontoxic/biodegradable cleaning products and water-conserving fixtures. Many also have extensive recycling programs, or are located near public transtporation and belong to local green business associations. While these things may not have anything to do with actual dental procedures, it helps to know that your dental office is making strides as a green business.
One important and dentistry-specific way that your dentist can help minimize his or her environmental impact is to use digital radiography, an effective, less energy intensive and nearly radiation-free alternative to old-school X-rays. Smaller but just-as-vital steps include using reusable cloth bibs instead of throwaway paper ones, using paper cups (I’d love to know how many a standard dental office goes through in a week) that are recyclable or made from recycled content, using a steam-based sterilization system rather than a chemical-based one, and properly disposing of old mercury fillings.
So what can you do, smiley, slightly deranged Susan? Just ask your dentist(s) what they are doing to go green (but don’t do so while they have a drill placed in your mouth). The Eco Dentistry Association has a large network of members (even one in Sante Fe!) and has published a list of sustainability related questions that you can ask your dentist. If your current dental team isn’t part of the EDA, mention the organization and pick their brains while they pick at your teeth. It also doesn’t hurt to read up on how exceptionally eco-minded dental offices like LEED-certified Mint Dental Works in Portland, Ore., Green Dentistry in San Francisco and Transcendentist (operated by the co-founders of the EDA) in Berkeley, Calif., operate.
And one last thing, Susan. I might be preaching to the choir when I say this, but one of the most important ways you can green your dental routine doesn’t involve a trip to your dentist, cosmetic dentist or periodontist. It involves you standing at the sink with a toothbrush in your mouth and remembering to turn off that tap while you’re brushing. Now keep on smilin’.