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Tell us where not to breathe

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By The Staff

They’ll tell us where it’s safe to eat, but not where it’s safe to breathe.

The Oldham County Health Department, the agency that warns us if our favorite restaurant has a less-than-desirable kitchen inspection, commissioned researchers in 2007 to study air quality of local restaurants before a county-wide ban of smoking in public places began.

Researchers acting as regular patrons visited 10 restaurant venues in March 2007 – before the smoking ban took effect – and again in 2008 to collect data from six restaurants, two entertainment venues and two restaurants that serve alcohol.

It’s a great idea for attempting to prove the success of a smoking ban, and we’re positive that’s the health department’s objective, considering OCHD worked hand-in-hand with lobbyist group Smoke-Free Oldham, sharing information and even a director, OCHD health educator Liz Burrows.

OCHD and UK officials are quick to point out what an improvement the smoking ban provided for air quality in local restaurants.

It makes sense that they’d back this type of study – they fought for change in our community and reached their goal. So after the study, they hosted a press conference, told us how much the smoking ban has improved local air quality and rattled off a list of the results. 35 is the toxic level for air quality standards, and one Oldham County restaurant earned a 303 before the smoking ban took effect.

But what doesn’t make sense is the fact they won’t reveal the names of the venues they tested, even the restaurant with toxic air flowing past its tables.

The results are clouded in secrecy.

OCHD and UK claim the right to protect their research by refusing to disclose the venues tested. Burrows told us in July the tests aren’t conducted to “make anyone look bad.”

So two publicly-funded agencies conducting publicly funded research of businesses open to the public refuse to release their results to the public.

Included in that public are the restaurant owners left wondering if the air quality in their restaurant is toxic, and if researchers ever visited their business in the first place.

Both agencies continue to deny our requests for a list of the venues tested and the results. They have said the restaurant with the previous highest level of toxic air remains that way, scoring a 94 after the smoking ban began.

OCHD will tell us where it could be unsafe to eat, but they won’t tell us where we’ll likely breathe toxic air.

This week, we interviewed a few restaurant owners to find out if UK or OCHD contacted them prior to or after the tests. No such luck.

Michael Reidy, owner of the Irish Rover Too, compares the air quality test to a test of radon or another dangerous gas. He said he’d want to know if air quality in his restaurant is considered unsafe. And Norma Jean Burley, owner of Norma Jean’s, said as restaurant owners, they have a right to know the results, and the right to know researchers planned to test their facilities. We have to agree.

The first step of improving indoor air quality is by notifying the owners of businesses where researchers found toxic air. When OCHD inspects a restaurant kitchen, they report those results to consumers by way of a report card at the entrance. In many cases, those report cards are a badge of honor for restaurant owners proud of their safe handling practices. In other cases, the report cards serve as an outline for restaurant owners to improve their procedures, and serve as a “proceed with caution” message for consumers.

We expect business owners would react the same way if notified of toxic air in their dining room or entertainment area. And consumers might request carry-out orders of their favorite dish, rather than requesting a table for two.

We encourage OCHD and UK researchers to come clean about local air quality. It’s one thing to boast the results of study designed to protect the public, but it’s another to put them to good use.