Practice Tips #118: Amalgam Separators - Know Your Options

Back in July of 2010, we published Practice Tips #24: “The Right Amalgam Separator for You” — covering the rules on amalgam separators and tips on how to choose one suited for your needs. Since that time, there have been a few updates, although the core regulation covering amalgam separators, ISO standard 11143-2008 has remained unchanged. In just a few short months, amalgam separators will be required across the United States per the EPA’s final rule of 2017.

Up until now, there were just a few areas of the United States, each with their own rules and requirements. The EPA will now mandate nation-wide use of amalgam separators. The guidelines call for the installation of amalgam separators certified under the ISO standard in ALL dental offices that remove amalgam and discharge waste into publicly owned treatment works (POTW).

Amalgam has long been recognized as a safe and effective restorative material. The American Dental Association lists an ISO11143-2008 certified amalgam separator as part of their BMP’s for handling amalgam waste.

A majority of you may practice in areas that already require amalgam separators. Many of those local regulations have requirements that already exceed the EPA guidelines, which simply calls for installation of a separator certified under ISO 11143-2008. Existing local regulations are more stringent than the EPA rule. If you are in an area that already requires use of amalgam separators and have a compliant separator, you will not need to change anything to be compliant with the EPA rule.

Shown Above: A Simple Chair-side System (#AL-30)

The ISO standard involves extensive testing to certify that a separator can remove at least 95% of all amalgam from the waste stream. Most separators currently on the market are certified well above that level (typically they are certified at or above 99% to conform to strict local regulations).

All you need to do is find the cheapest certified separator on the market, right? Not necessarily.

First, you’ll need to consider how many total operatories you have and how many users. There are two different chair-side systems on the market which are #AL-30 and #AL-10 and are among the least costly options available. If you have several operatories (or more), the cost of purchasing multiple chair-side systems will be higher than just purchasing a single system (such as the previously mentioned AL-30 and AL-10) to connect to the central vacuum. For units installed at the central vacuum, you’ll also need to compare these system’s specifications for capacity (typically expressed as total number of users they can work with) to the total number of users at any given time in your office.

Shown Above: A System Installed on the Central Vacuum (#AL-63)

Next, you’ll need to consider the average filter life. If one separator has an expected life of 6 months and another has a full year, even if the longer-lived cartridge is more costly, as long as the price isn’t double, it will still be less expensive over the life of the separator. It’s generally best to amortize total costs over a 5 year period to determine what truly is the most cost effective solution for you.

Add up the cost of the system, the costs of any replacement cartridges required over 5 years and the costs of recycling (if not included with replacement cartridges). Compare the total costs over 5 years to determine what is actually most economical.

Shown Above: A Compact System Designed for Install Chair-side (#AL-10).

Last of all, you’ll need to consider your own office set-up and operations. Even if a system installed at the central vacuum may be less costly on paper, the ease of installation of a chair-side system may make it more attractive. Chair-side systems can be simply installed in a few minutes by any member of staff, whereas central systems are generally installed on the plumbing (they may require a plumber or dental equipment technician). Chair-side systems are also easier to monitor to make certain you keep on top of necessary cartridge replacements. If not carefully monitored on a regular basis, some centrally installed systems can enter by-pass when full, which will take you out of compliance. Regardless of where your system is located, it should be checked on a weekly basis to make certain cartridges are replaced when full.

The use of an amalgam separator certified under ISO standard 11143 is soon to be a federally mandated requirement. Start doing your homework now, to make certain you can stay in compliance without spending too much.