Postgraduate student at Department of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies Units: History of Science and Idéas
A, YA, Humanisthuset, Norra Beteendevetarhuset Umeå universitet, 901 87 Umeå
My PhD project in the history of science and ideas deals with controversy, science and policy regarding possible poisoning from dental amalgam in Sweden ca. 1969 - 2009. The time period ends with the general mercury ban adopted by the Swedish Parliament in 2009, by which dental amalgam was banned for environmental reasons. It begins with Karl O Frykholm's report in 1969 on the phenomenon known as oral galvanism, where dissimilar metallic dental filling are said to form a galvanic power cell with the saliva as an electrolyte. The report was the result of an inquiry made to the Swedish research councils by the Natural Sciences Research Council, and it garnered some of the earliest Swedish media attention for what was described as a condition which, albeit extremely rare and rather diffuse in terms of symptoms, not only causes considerable suffering, but is also excluded from public health and dental care. The report and the media coverage it was given did not immediately cause much further debate, but the 1970's saw an increase in Swedish research on the phenomenon. The main controversy, which was to last for decades, arguably even until today, took off in the late 1970' and early 1980', following an interview in Aftonbladet with renowned singer Gunnar Wiklund. In it, the singer relates his experience of a decade-long struggle against crippling oral galvanism and against a lack of understanding from the medical and dental profession. A heated debate concerning the claims that dental fillings could cause severe health problems erupted.
Around the same time, mercury from dental amalgam was being targeted as a source of environmental pollution. Soon, the oral galvanism debate dealt more and more with possible mercury poisoning as a main cause of systemic problems in oralgalvanic patients. The controversy grew rapidly, a patients' interest organistion was formed in the late 1970's, which attracted many members and carried out highly successful lobbying among politicians and journalists. The debate led to political pressure, first in the form of parliamentary motions and hearings, later also in the form of expert panels, governmental committees etc. Science was highly involved from the start. Not only were scientists cited to support both sides, they were also getting involved actively in the media debate, they were put on expert panels and they were granted money to investigate the issue further. Apart from dental and medical researchers, or zoo physiologists, like leading anti-amalgam activist Mats Hanson, influential actors in the controversy were toxicologists, chemists and materials specialists. The field of environmental medicine was a particularly fertile ground for participants of the debate, not least the State Laboratory for Environmental Medicine (Statens miljömedicinska laboratorium), created and led by leading metal toxicologist Lars Friberg. Many of these scientific field thus constitute important contexts for understanding the controversy.
With my thesis, I aim to plot the controversy and its origins in detail, mainly through studying the three arenas of scientific and professional (dental and medical) journals, political debates and committees, and the media; locating it in the contexts of risk society/toxic risk, the move towards participatory policy and citizen-as-consumer, and the rise of evidence-based medicine in policy. Rooted in the medical-humanist insight of disease as always culturally contingent and negotiated as part of its surrounding society, the thesis takes theoretical cues from STS (Science and Technology Studies), to allow the dental amalgam controversy to speak about expectations on, and working of, various societal relationships, such as science-society/policy, individual-society, medicine-society, and environment-people-society.