No occupation is without possible health and safety issues in today’s world, not least, at the very medical institutions who take care of the nation’s health. Following the highly publicised dangers that may be present in some of the UK’s hospitals, in the form of Legionnaire’s Disease or MRSA, a recent report suggests that dentists are among the occupational groups facing a higher than average risk of developing the asbestos-related disease, mesothelioma.

Amongst the general public, there is a probably a lack of asbestos awareness that the mineral had been used in a number of applications at dental surgeries, since at least 1930.  One particular use was as a protective  lining material to confine melted metal, when dentists would heat metal in the casting ring or crucible to form a crown or bridge.

The main type of asbestos used in the lining was chrysotile, also known as white asbestos.  The asbestos lining came in a roll which, when cut to size for making the crucible or casting ring, released asbestos fibres. Once airborne, toxic fibres can be inhaled and become stuck fast in the linings and pleural cavities of the lungs.  A long latency period of up to 40 years or more would mean that it would be decades later that asbestosis symptoms would first show, indicating the presence of a developing condition of mesothelioma or asbestosis.

There have been several reports of dentists and dental technician developing asbestos-related diseases, although contamination levels may be lower than in other occupations. However, everyday exposure in closed, poorly ventilated spaces can create risk for dentists, dentistry students and dental technicians by the increasing concentration of asbestos fibres inhaled.

It was reported in 2009 that a dental technician died, aged 73, from contracting  mesothelioma, caused by exposure to asbestos throughout his entire working life. Entering a laboratory at the age of 13, he had worked with dental equipment believed to have contained asbestos, in the lab, until retirement. The post-mortem examination found ‘an extensive tumour’ in the lung and ‘numerous asbestos fibres’, considered as  ‘evidence of much greater than average exposure during life’.

The report concluded that since dentists work in small, confined examination rooms and surgeries, and usually, without taking precautions against inhaling asbestos – due to a possible lack of awareness of the hazards – they are at a greater risk, and should carefully monitor their health with their GP.