Mercury in dentistry has re-emerged as a contentious issue in public health, predominantly because so many people are inadvertently exposed to mercury in order to obtain the benefits of dental amalgam fillings, and the risks remain difficult to interpret. This commentary aims to examine the issues involved in public policy assessment of the continued use of dental amalgam in dentistry. More than 30 per cent of Australian adults are concerned about mercury from dental amalgam fillings but only a small percentage report having their amalgam fillings removed. The placement of dental fillings nearly halved between 1983 and 1997, but many millions of dental amalgam fillings exist in the Australian community. These fillings release mercury (mercury vapour or inorganic ions) at a low level (about 2-5 micrograms/day in an adult). Evidence on the health effect of dental amalgams comes from studies of the association between their presence and signs or symptoms of adverse effects or health changes after removal of dental amalgam fillings. More formal risk assessment studies focus on occupational exposure to mercury and health effects. Numerous methodological issues make their interpretation difficult but new research will continue to challenge policymakers. Policy will also reflect prudent and cautious approaches, encouraging minimization of exposure to mercury in potentially more sensitive population groups. Wider environmental concerns and decreasing tolerance of exposure to other mercury compounds (for example, methylmercury in seafoods) will ensure the use of mercury in dentistry remains an issue, necessitating dentists keep their patients informed of health risks and respect their choices.