Kentuckians suffer from asthma and are hospitalized due to the lung disease at higher than the national rates. Asthma afflicts almost one in 10 of our state's residents.
Breathing ground-level ozone produced by vehicles, factories and power plants can cause asthma as well as other respiratory ailments such as bronchitis. In summer, ozone mixes in the heat with particles in the air to form smog.
Nationally, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency predicts that reducing allowable ozone levels from the current 75 parts per billion of air to 60 parts per billion, as scientists recommend, would prevent up to 12,000 premature deaths, 5,300 nonfatal heart attacks, 58,000 cases of aggravated asthma and 2.5 million missed school and work days each year.
We couldn't find projections for Kentucky, but the state would obviously gain from reducing the incidence of asthma as well as heart attacks. We're not known as Coronary Alley for nothing.
Yet Gov. Steve Beshear, who has been so good at expanding Kentuckians' access to medical care, still has a blind spot when it comes to prevention.
After the proposed new rule was released late last month, Beshear sent a letter to President Barack Obama urging him to leave the ozone standard unchanged.
The governor insisted that complying with a tougher standard would hurt manufacturing and Kentucky's economy by driving up costs and stifling growth.
Some industry groups were downright hysterical, branding the rule the most expensive ever before knowing what it would be.
The EPA issued the proposal just under a federal judge's deadline of Dec. 1. The Clean Air Act requires the agency to review air-quality standards every five years and tighten those that fall short of protecting human health.
Obama delayed the ozone rule in 2011 to avoid controversy before his re-election; the delay prompted a lawsuit that yielded the court-imposed deadline.
Places that fail to meet the federal ozone standard are classified as "nonattainment." State and local governments must then take steps to reduce the pollutant.
In his letter to Obama, Beshear said that just one of the state's metro areas is failing to meet the current 75 ppb standard. That's Northern Kentucky.
If the standard were set at 70 ppb, only Kentucky's major metro areas would be out of compliance.
But if the most stringent alternative, the 60 ppb standard recommended by the EPA's Clean Air Science Advisory Committee, is adopted, all 29 of the places where Kentucky monitors the air would be out of compliance.
We know the high rate of smoking contributes to the prevalence of asthma in Kentucky, which is also famously rich in natural allergens.
But non-smoking parents who wonder why their children struggle to breathe, even when living outside metro areas, should consider the effects of air pollution.
And all Kentuckians should question the state's conventional political wisdom that we can't afford a cleaner environment when pollution extracts such a heavy toll in medical costs and lost productivity.