Dollars for Dentists

There's nothing Dog Bites loves more than an esoteric discussion at an obscure public meeting, which is why we got so riled up at a recent get-together of the Board of Supervisors' Government Audit and Oversight Committee (also known as "The Fun Patrol").

During a fascinating talk on the difference between city contracts and city grants (wait, wait, don't tell me ... OK, tell me), officials voiced concern that the city is doling out grants, which aren't as well-regulated as contracts, like hard municipal candy -- three times as many in 2004 as in 2000. After explaining that the problem was mostly due to coding errors, Controller Ed Harrington admitted that, according to his own records, "a couple hundred doctors got $200 from the Department of the Environment. ... I don't even know what that program is."

Honesty lives! Harrington's stunning admission of ignorance nearly made us weep, and we felt compelled to hit the streets and help our controller discover the identity of this "mystery" program.

Here's what we learned: Wedged inside most San Franciscans' teeth, it seems, are "silver" amalgam fillings that contain mercury. When fillings are placed or replaced, amalgam scraps sometimes break off and mayend up in the bay.

For more than a decade, the city's Public Utilities Commission has been under federal pressure to cut mercury levels in local wastewater. Dental amalgam accounts for a small percentage of mercury waste, and research doesn't show exactly how much amalgam dissolves into toxic mercury once it enters the bay. But that didn't stop the PUC from issuing regulations in 2003 requiring that dentists buy expensive doodads called amalgam separators to capture the scrap. After all, if it's too hard to regulate mercury from long-neglected mines and well-connected power companies, it's relatively easy to force dentists into buying an $800 piece of equipment -- especially if they are threatened with a $10,000 fine for noncompliance.

"Some things are done that aren't necessarily 100 percent scientifically justified, but public perceptions are very important," says the San Francisco Dental Society's Donna Hurowitz, who initially fought the regulations but ended up corralling about 800 other dentists into complying after she realized the new rules were here to stay. "If you want science, that's not the role of the PUC. They don't do science." Indeed, the PUC referred our scientific questions to the Department of the Environment, where Sushma Dhulipala, the Commercial Toxics Reduction Program coordinator, told us: "It's a matter of being precautionary. We don't know how much harm can come from the mercury -- we don't have the answer to that question."

Don't feel too sorry for Dr. Hurowitz and her cohorts, though. You paid for the separators, too. The Environmentally Responsible Dentistry Program, run by the Department of the Environment in coordination with the PUC, handed out $200 rebates to 99 dentists who bought them. There's your answer, Ed Harrington: Another $20,000 in taxpayer money down the drain. (Ryan Blitstein)

Sex Toy Firm Blows Out of Town

Say "so long" to the company that helped make the Rabbit Pearl famous.

Passion Parties, the in-home party sales firm that has done for dildos what Tupperware did for plastic tumblers and Jel-Ring Molds, has up and left San Francisco in favor of Las Vegas. (OK, to be precise, Passion Parties was located just outside the city limits in Brisbane but always held a special place in our, um, heart.)

From its former headquarters in a nondescript warehouse near San Francisco International Airport, the privately held company had inserted itself into American popular culture, offering a range of creams, gels, and sex toys with deliciously descriptive names. Besides the Rabbit Pearl, which made its debut on an episode of Sex and the City several years ago, the company's better-selling toys include the Thumb Pleaser, the Chocolate Thriller, and the Honey Dipper. Talk about a party!

Company President Pat Davis, a grandmother and self-proclaimed passion expert (she's been married to the same man for 44 years), insists that Passion Parties' departure for Sin City in October had more to do with lower taxes than Vegas' libertine image. "To be honest, the Sin City label was really a negative for us in weighing the move," says Davis, who in four years at the helm has sought to shape the company's image around "loving relationships" as opposed to just sex.

That's no easy trick when you're hawking dildos.

The company uses a cadre of some 6,000 Mary Kay-style consultants -- referred to as Passion Ladies -- to sell its wares at in-home parties, à la the old Tupperware model. It employed about 70 people -- including clerical staff and warehouse workers -- at its San Francisco-area headquarters. About a dozen of those employees chose to make the move to Las Vegas.

So why did the company really leave?

"Las Vegas is a less expensive place to do business," Davis says. "This isn't what Arnold Schwarzenegger will want to hear, but there's no sales tax in Nevada and workers' compensation costs are much lower."

Passion Parties is owned by two publicity-averse San Franciscans, investor and retired CPA William Clark and attorney William Dillingham, a partner in the downtown firm of Dillingham & Murphy, whose blue-chip clients include DuPont, ConocoPhillips, and Safeway. (Dillingham's also a trustee of Sir Thomas More Chapel at Yale, his alma mater.)

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