Credit: American Lung Association

Ozone is a colorless, odorless chemical in our air. High in the sky, it protects us from the sun’s dangerous ultraviolet rays. But at ground level, where we breathe it, it’s the main component of smog. It is a dangerous air pollutant, yet Louisiana’s U.S. Sen. David Vitter wants to stop the government from taking new steps to control it.

When we inhale ozone, it burns our lungs and airways, making them swollen and inflamed. In children with asthma, it makes those frightening asthma attacks more frequent. Children and teens, as well as senior citizens, are especially vulnerable to ozone’s health impacts. So are people with lung diseases like chronic bronchitis and emphysema. It hurts healthy people too, like joggers and outdoor workers.

It can be fatal. “Research shows that breathing ozone can shorten human life — can kill — at levels currently considered safe,” says the American Lung Association (ALA).

Unfortunately, many families in Louisiana know these problems all too well. An estimated 68,000 children and teens in the state suffer from asthma, according to the ALA. Asthma afflicts more than 190,000 Louisiana adults, roughly the same number of state residents who suffer from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which strikes middle-aged and older adults and is the third leading cause of death in the U.S.

Bad air makes it worse. The latest ALA report card gives more than half of Louisiana’s parishes — 13 out of the 19 for which there is data — an “F” or a “D” for ozone pollution. Jefferson and St. Tammany scored “F.” St. Bernard got a “D.” Orleans did better: “B.” In other words, Louisiana could really use a dose of clean air.

Yet last month, Vitter brought what amounted to a Dirty Air Road Show to Baton Rouge and Lake Charles. In each city, he held a one-sided “field briefing” to denounce a new health standard for ozone that the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) hasn’t even announced yet. His message, in effect: Keep Louisiana’s air unsafe.

Vitter says the ozone standard is critical to Louisiana’s future. That’s right — but not in the way he means.

Vitter is campaigning against the consensus of independent scientific experts. The current EPA standard for ozone pollution, 75 parts per billion (ppb), is too lenient. At this level ozone is harming millions upon millions of Americans. When this standard was set in 2008, independent scientists complained it was insufficient.

In the intervening years, doctors and other researchers have conducted more tests. Surveying all the data, EPA’s advisory board of independent science and medical advisors reported in June that the best medical studies show ozone safeguards need to be strengthened to between 60 and 70 ppb to protect all Americans. Earlier this month, the EPA’s own staff confirmed that finding. The recommendation now goes to the agency leadership and the White House.

The numbers have real implications for real people: hundreds of lives saved every year nationwide, thousands of emergency trips to the hospital avoided, tens of thousands of asthma attacks prevented. Despite the medical science Vitter said last month in Lake Charles, “I think we have good, safe air quality right now.”

EPA is set to consider the overwhelming scientific evidence and propose a new safety limit for ozone by December, with a final decision in October, 2015. Vitter should support this move to protect the health of Louisiana’s kids, seniors and other vulnerable residents.

Instead, without waiting for EPA’s proposal, Vitter, who has received millions in corporate campaign donations over the years, and his polluter friends are attacking any change in the current, unhealthy, standard. They want Congress to reject the new safeguard and deny all Americans their right to clean air. They’re using a well-worn tactic — hyped-up, sky-is-falling predictions of economic calamity, job losses and rising costs. Of course, they don’t mention the huge benefits of a healthier population.

This should sound familiar. Every time the government has proposed an important measure to protect public health — from limits on auto tailpipe emissions to the Clean Water Act — polluters have predicted rack and ruin. And every time they’ve been wrong. History proves we can maintain a robust economy while protecting our air and water, and safeguarding public health against dangerous pollution.

Vitter says the ozone standard is critical to Louisiana’s future. That’s right — but not in the way he means. Louisianans should tell the senator it is critical to have a future where their kids are healthy and their air is clean. They should tell him they want their health standards based on science and medicine, not the agenda of corporate polluters.

John Walke is director of the Clean Air Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council.