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What you can do to protect yourself and your children at the dentist

RICHMOND, Va. -- Bacteria in the water at a dental clinic sent 30 kids to the hospital in Southern California two years ago.

And, in 2013, two oral surgery clinics in Tulsa, Oklahoma closed down, and thousands of patients had to be tested for HIV and Hepatitis due in part to instruments not being properly sanitized.

Both are horrific examples of what can happen when a dental practice does not properly clean its equipment and maintain the purity of its water.

Last week, CBS 6 told you about concerns raised by a local pediatric dentist about a Richmond clinic that she and two colleagues claimed was not correctly sterilizing the hand pieces used to remove cavities and polish fillings.

Dr. Richard Byrd and Associates

Instead of using the acceptable steam heat method, she said staff members at the Forest Hill office of Dr. Richard Byrd and Associates had just been wiping those instruments off with an intermediate level disinfectant between patients.

The dentist, who agreed to speak with CBS 6 under the condition we not identify her, said she also learned the lines that supply the water used to clean patients' teeth allegedly were not being treated to CDC guidelines.

The dentist said she also learned the lines that supply the water used to clean patients' teeth allegedly were not being treated to CDC guidelines.

"And if you're not properly taking care of the water that is being used, what could develop in the water?" CBS 6 investigative reporter Melissa Hipolit asked her.

"It creates a biofilm, and its heterotrophic bacteria that can live and multiply in those lines, things like E. coli, endotoxins, which are a very serious concern, MRSA has been found inside these lines," she responded.

An attorney representing the practice told CBS 6 that Dr. Byrd and his staff fully cooperated with a state review of the matter and said that the complaint was closed without any action being taken.

But, in the wake of the accusations, the CBS 6 Problem Solvers wanted to know what you can do to protect yourself and your children at the dentist, so we visited Dr. Sobia Carter at RVA Children's Dentistry.

She said patients should not panic but should be aware.

"To be honest most dentists are doing the best they can, they care very deeply about their patients and they want to do what is right for their patients,” said Carter. “Most dentists are very happy to answer any questions you have about sterilization.”

Dr. Sobia Carter

If you're concerned, Carter recommends asking your dentist to show you how they sterilize their equipment.

She took us through the process, which starts with removing any debris from the dirty instruments, then treating them with a chemical fluid, drying them off, wrapping them in packaging, and placing them in an autoclave.

"An autoclave uses highly pressurized steam that remains at a certain temperature long enough to kill all bacteria and pathogens on those instruments," Carter said.

Dr. Carter also suggested asking to take a look at your office's sterilization protocol.

"You can ask to see the notebook that gives you sterilization protocol and training," Carter said.

As for the water lines?

"What about with the water… how can you as a patient confirm they are treating the water properly?" Hipolit asked.

"There's not a lot on the patient end," Carter said. "If you really have a question or an issue... ask to know."

She showed CBS 6 her filtration system, something patients could request to look at as well.

And, she provided one last piece of advice to people worried about the condition of the equipment used by their dentist.

"What should you do if you feel like your child or yourself has been exposed to something that was not sterile?" Hipolit asked.

"If you're feeling like you have been exposed to something that's not sterile it's best that you go see your pediatrician for your child or your doctor for yourself and they can recommend the appropriate testing," Carter said.

Dr. Carter also suggested checking to make sure your dentist or dental assistant always uses fresh gloves anytime they do work in you or your child's mouth.

For example, they should not go touch a computer, and then put the gloves in a mouth.

And, she said you should check to see if the dental instruments come out of a clean, sterile pouch or wrap.

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