May 8, 2008 — -- When Faye Lewis became concerned about her painful new bridgework, she had it checked out and received some disturbing news: Her bridge was manufactured in China and tainted with lead.
More dentists are using crowns and bridges made in China. According to the United State Customs Office, the number of dental products coming into the United States from China has doubled in the last year.
An investigation by ABC News affiliate WJLA-TV found that at least some of those dental products contain lead.
Lewis initially went to have a chipped tooth fixed, but her resulting bridgework fit so poorly and painfully, she couldn't chew her food. The 73-year-old told her dentist what she wanted to do was chew out whoever built her bridge.
According to Lewis, her dentist replied, "That will be a little hard to do because they're in China."
As a grandmother, Lewis was aware of news reports about the recall of lead-tainted toys from China. Lead accumulates in the body and can affect kidneys, eyes, heart, the immune system and cognitive function.
So Lewis sent her dental work to a lab for testing. The results showed that it did indeed contain lead.
Ricki Braswell, co-executive director of the National Association of Dental Laboratories, said there is little regulation when it comes to dental work.
"Because you have an unregulated industry, you really don't have standards," Braswell said. "You don't have standards in the domestic industry. You certainly don't have standards in the foreign industry."
Tony Prestipino, who owns Artifex dental lab in Virginia, ordered 10 crowns from three dental labs in China on behalf of WJLA.
Crowns from China sell for $30 to $50 to dentists, who then can charge up to $1,200 to patients who don't know the crowns were made in China.
A Chinese lab representative told Prestipino over the phone, "We follow this military 'don't ask, don't tell' policy."
Within five days the crowns arrived.
"The first thing I see is that this is a horrible color and a horrible shape," Prestipino said.
Those crowns had problems similar to Lewis'. They didn't match the prescription and never would fit properly.
When that happens, Prestipino said, "bacteria seeps right into it. You will end up needing a root canal."
If Lewis' bridge hadn't fit so poorly, she never would have had it removed or tested for toxic materials.
Next, WJLA had the China-made crowns tested for lead at NSL Analytical in Cleveland.
Using a sophisticated process that takes days to complete, the lab did not find lead in any of the metal portion of the crowns. But in every case, lead contamination was discovered in the porcelain parts of the crown at some very high levels.
"We never expected to see lead in teeth," said NSL president Larry Somrack.
In the crowns tested, the lead levels were as high as 490 parts per million. That's five times higher than the 90 ppm a Congressional committee wants the U.S. to set for toys.
Faye Lewis believes that money is behind the increased use of dental work from China. "It's a cost factor. It's the big dollar," she said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says it does not believe the lead levels found pose an immediate health risk and isn't recommending people delay dental work, or have prior work redone. Meanwhile, the American Dental Association is conducting an investigation of its own.
The ADA plans to analyze up to 100 crowns blindly, about 50 percent will be from the U.S. and the other half from foreign countries.
Cliff Carey, an analytical chemist with the ADA, says the organization hopes to finish the study within a year and will provide the results to the CDC.
In the testing conducted so far, Carey said that no lead was found in the crowns. The ADA is testing porcelain powders and has found traces of lead, but in very small amounts, he said.