A dental lab and laundromat in the same building? How it’s perfectly legal in Arizona.

Tom Elam is running a dental lab out of the same building as his laundromat, which is also the same storefront he was charged with selling drugs out of.
Published: May. 22, 2023 at 6:00 AM MST|Updated: May. 22, 2023 at 9:51 PM MST
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ST. JOHNS, AZ (3TV/CBS 5) - A convicted felon in St. Johns is running a dental lab out of the same building as his laundromat. It’s also the same storefront he was charged with selling drugs out of. And he’s not hiding his work — he has billboards up in town.

Arizona’s Family Investigates found it’s been going on for years, and it’s legal. That’s because Arizona doesn’t license and regulate dental labs, meaning no one is inspecting them or doing background checks.

It’s called Denture Adventure. As you drive into St. Johns, the only billboard advertises on one side for the dental lab and on the other for the 7th Street Laundry and Showers. The phone number is the same for both. That’s because Tom Elam is running them out of the same building.

Map showing location of St. John's, Arizona
St. Johns, Arizona is located in the northeast part of the state in Apache County.(azfamily)

Arizona’s Family Investigates tracked down Elam to learn more. He admits he’s not licensed. “You don’t have to be licensed here in Arizona,” he said. Turns out he’s right. “We’re a dental lab. We just make the prosthetic. We don’t go into the mouth. We don’t work in the mouth,” Elam said. Elam showed Arizona’s Family Investigates around his lab. “We pour into the stone, and then we build the prosthetic on the stone,” he explained.

How was he trained? “Well, I worked for a dentist for years in my 20′s. My father-in-law was a dentist,” Elam responded. In Arizona, that’s enough because the state doesn’t regulate dental labs and their techs. That means no one is checking Elam’s criminal background.

Arizona’s Family Investigates found police arrested him for selling meth out of the laundromat in 2015. Elam was also charged with trafficking in stolen property and possession of drug paraphernalia. Court records show as part of a plea deal, Elam pleaded guilty to all three charges and got seven years’ probation. He shrugged off the conviction, claiming, “That was all false imprisonment anyways.”

“We’re dealing with healthcare and dirty laundry in the same building,” Dr. Brennon Hancock said. It’s why the St. Johns dentist said he reached out to the State Board of Dental Examiners. “There’s not that quality assurance of that dentist watching these medical appliances,” Dr. Hancock explained.

The State Dental Board declined an interview but confirmed they investigated and that Elam is not licensed. In response to questions, they wrote, “We have no jurisdiction over dental labs. Unfortunately, the information we were provided did not indicate the lab technician was doing dentistry.”

Hancock also went to the police. “I understand his frustrations. The law is complex,” St. Johns Police Chief Lance Spivey said. Chief Spivey said his officers haven’t been trained on this part of the law, so he referred the case to the Arizona Attorney General’s Office. The AG’s Office said they looked into it and found no wrongdoing.

The lack of regulation is frustrating but not surprising to Bennett Napier with the National Association of Dental Laboratories. “It’s a consumer safety issue. So the devices that are being prescribed and placed in patients mouths are a medical device,” Napier said. He argued more states need to license and regulate dental labs. Right now, only 13 do, but not Arizona. “If there’s something that goes wrong, there’s no recourse for that,” he said.

Elam said what he’s doing is benefiting his community. “This is one of the poorest counties in Arizona, and there’s a lot of people that need a lot of help,” Elam explained. He claims his products cost a third of what a dentist would charge and that those who come to him don’t have insurance and can’t afford a dentist.

“I feel for the community, I feel for the cost,” Dr. Hancock said. “There are ways to do it, there are Medicaid programs,” he continued. Dr. Hancock said he only works with dental labs that are overseen by a dentist or denturist.

If you experience issues with products from dental labs, the Arizona AG’s Office urges you to contact them.