Green Dentistry: Pioneer Fills a Gap in the Field


They said a dental office had to be a bland and benign, pastel-painted suite, where soothing visuals meant polyester contract furniture, framed school degrees and prints of egrets wading in marshlands. It’s all so relaxing until you inhale the fumes of old decay being excavated by a rotating drill bit and submit to the discomfort and dangers of a full mouth x-ray.

But at least one dentist isn’t taking what the old industry feeds us lying down. Dr. Namrata Patel has established the first serious green dental office in San Francisco, opening wide to the notion of improving the dental office environment as we know it. And guess what? Her patients are biting, all 700 of them!

“Even the air you breathe in the office is filtered,” she tells me on a break between seeing patients. “We have a lot of clients who are sensitive to chemicals, and when you come in you can’t even tell it’s a dental office. It doesn’t have that chemical dental smell.”

Instead, her million-dollar investment in the retail dominated Union Square district adheres to the best in LEED design, which calls for operating near mass transit and having a public parking garage nearby.

The architectural firm of Ruth and Kanieri walked Patel through the process of green modes and codes. The space emerges as a well-appointed, eco-smart Manhattan townhouse with responsibly harvested wood floors and architectural panels made from reclaimed vinyl and eco-resins – all insulated with organic acoustic fibers from recycled denim jeans. You can tell by looking at the hallway and waiting room (above), this is a pretty painless place for kicking back.

“If I’m going to live like this at home, I’m going to make my workplace the same because I spend so much time here,” says Patel, who left her village of eight families in India at the age of five and graduated from USC Dental school with honors. She says a green consciousness was ingrained in her as a child but she didn’t recognize it at the time.

“I thought my parents were really cheap because they wouldn’t throw anything away and all of our food had to come from the farmers market,” she remembers. “They weren’t green but our religion is Jainism and it means everything has value, even bacteria. Even the bacteria you are killing matters and you are conscious of that.”

Patel attacks bacteria with biodegradable sterilization solutions, which are used to clean the chairs after exams. Here are a few other steps she takes to remain sustainable:

PhotobucketDigital imaging technology replaces X-rays to reduce radiation exposure by 90 percent.

PhotobucketInstruments are cleaned with steam-based, surgical-grade sterilization rather than harmful chemicals and water use.

PhotobucketThe environmentally-sound disposal of old mercury fillings through the installation of a special water filtration system. This offsets the health hazards from ingesting mercury vapors and prevents further pollution of local waterways.

PhotobucketGoing paperless with digital signatures for patient payments and substituting disposable Dixie cups for rinsing with old-fashioned bar shot glasses.


Patel says her fees are in the 70th percentile, but the fact she prioritizes prevention should keep patients out of her office more often. “Not everyone is interested in the detail and care we give,” she says, alluding to her passionate lectures on flossing to offset wasting time and money on oral hygiene.

To that end, she has created a new website called Toothhugger, reaching out to consumers by dispensing free advice on everything from finding natural toothbrushes to battling stains from coffee (she tells us to sip our brew through a natural straw!).

“I got my inspiration in dentistry through my work with nonprofits, treating field workers who were poor and out of touch and experiencing a lot of pain,” she shares. “Being there for them made a big difference. They’d come back with oranges for me or a Kit Kat bar.”

- Dr. Patel

It seems Patel is also making a difference in the industry. Will other dentists follow suit? Guess that depends largely upon the demand. I say, let’s raise our shot glasses and toast to it!

Luanne Bradley

Luanne Sanders Bradley is the West coast Editor at EcoSalon and currently resides in San Francisco, California.