What’s the moment at which sick children and premature deaths from asthma become the priority?

Earlier this summer, the EPA presented the president with a proposal to reduce the amount of ozone–a key contributor to smog–that’s allowed in our air. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson had referred to the existing smog standard as “legally indefensible.”

Last Friday, the President rejected any reduction in the near term.

President Obama is in a tough spot. American families are suffering in this economy, and the news that we saw zero net job growth in August doesn’t help. A tough election season looms. But none of that excuses failing to protect our children’s health.

Polluters present this as a choice between jobs and health. Don’t believe it. Americans deserve both a stronger economy and a cleaner environment. Studies (and our anecdotal experience) have demonstrated that reducing pollution is often a net job creator – just not for the polluters.

When it comes to limiting smog—technically, limiting ground-level ozone, a precursor of smog– the most directly affected Americans, aside from polluters, are people with asthma, especially children. Nine million American kids suffer from this disease, which is aggravated by poor air quality. It hits the African-American community especially hard: the CDC says one out of six black children have asthma.

We have to remember that these children are real people, not just statistics. I’ve written before about Ja-Mickeal James Lane of Colorado, for example, an adorable five-year-old boy who had a severe asthma attack in the middle of the night and died in his bed.

I like to think that I’m not just a statistic, either. I was a child with asthma, and my family lived in a polluted neighborhood near oil refineries and factories. Our doctor told my mother that for the sake of my health, we should move. There was no way we could afford to do that. That was the choice offered: be sick or move. That’s the sort of choice we need to address.
Children do not have the power to demand that polluters clean up their act. They depend on us to take care of them. And we must not let them down.

The benefits of limiting air pollution are clear: it improves life for all Americans, and is a matter of health—and even life and death—for some. Setting sensible limits on how much pollution Americans should be forced to breathe is a classic example of government protecting its most vulnerable citizens, for the benefit of all.

The president’s decision effectively postpones a reconsideration of the ozone standard to 2013. But the time to clear the air is now. Was yesterday. Was at the moment of birth for every child who now struggles to breathe on warm smoggy days. It’s unimaginable to suggest that this action can be delayed. We must refuse to accept that.