The federal elections next year will determine more than the course of future federal spending. The quality of the very air that we breathe is at stake.

Throughout my life, I have suffered from asthma. It can make you feel as if you are suffocating.

It started when I was 5 and it is still with me today. So, when I see children gasping and shaking from the asthma attacking their bodies, I ask myself this: “Why should any child have to grasp for an inhaler in an agonizing search for temporary relief when our nation has made a commitment to clean air?”

The answer is as brutal as it is clear. There are those in big business and in the Congress who value profits over our health – and even our lives.

This cruel and dangerous hierarchy of values is overdue for change. Now, nearly 40 years after a bipartisan effort created the federal Clean Air Act, President Obama and our Environmental Protection Agency are taking action to make that change a reality.

In this fight, the president is supported in the Congress by leaders like Maryland’s own Sen. Ben Cardin and Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich, affirmed by health experts like the American Medical Association and American Lung Association, and aided by environmental lawyers like John Walke and Emily Davis of the National Resources Defense Council.

Together, we are fighting for America’s right to breathe. As in the past, however, some powerful forces are opposed. Here is what is at stake.

Since the 1990 Clean Air Amendments became law, more than 100 air toxic standards have been adopted, covering chemical plants, oil refineries, steel plants and other manufacturers. This essential legislation has prevented hundreds of thousands of premature deaths, millions of asthma attacks and tens of millions of respiratory illnesses.

That is the good news.

During that same 20 years, however, those who profit from power plants, cement plants, industrial boilers and process heaters have used their political clout in Washington to gain delays in regulation – as well as lenient Bush-era rules that our appellate courts concluded were not in compliance with federal law.

As a result of this ongoing public health tragedy, coal-fired industrial plants are currently responsible for nearly three-quarters of toxic mercury air emissions, affecting more than 400,000 newborns every year. Overall, the 386,000 tons of hazardous air pollutants they release annually contribute to premature deaths, birth defects and cancer – especially among our infants.

How could this be permitted?

Coal burning power plants, boilers and cement plants received a pass on paying the cost of compliance with clean air regulation during the Bush years. Now, in President Obama, they have discovered that there is a new sheriff in town.

In reaction, these powerful industrial giants, many of them arms of multinational corporations, are fighting with all of their economic and political power to avoid what other industries have achieved – compliance with the Clean Air Act.

Aided and abetted by their political allies on Capitol Hill, their tactics remain those that have worked for them in the past – arguments about the cost of compliance, attacks on the President and EPA, and efforts to legislate further delays.

They hope to hold off enforcement of these essential health rules until they can use their financial power to elect a president and Senate to give them what the Bush Administration allowed – the right to profit from air pollution.

We cannot afford to allow these polluters to prevail. Far too much is at stake, both now and on Election Day next year.

So, when industry allies try to convince us that protecting our health will cost America too many jobs, we should remind them that restoring cleaner air and water creates jobs – more than 1.6 million American jobs at present and expanding every year.

Above all, we should respond that the health of every American is at stake.

The EPA’s proposed mercury and air toxic standards for coal and oil-burning power plants, cement plants and industrial boilers are projected to save as many as 26,000 American lives each year. Health savings for our society, when compared to the cost to industry of compliance, will range from 5-1 to 39-1.

The benefit to the Americans vulnerable to asthma attacks? The new EPA rules should prevent up to 168,000 aggravated asthma attacks every year.

As my colleague, Congressman Kucinich observed, “Congress passed the Clean Air and Clean Water Act because the American public demanded it. … They don’t like their children to inhale, drink and die from toxic compounds from which even the most diligent parent can’t protect them.”

From the depths of my heart, I agree.

These new EPA Clean Air Rules are a long-overdue protection that American families deserve and need.

No more exemptions. No more delays.

Congressman Elijah Cummings represents Maryland’s 7th Congressional District in the United States House of Representatives.