Among the slick brochures put out by Indiana’s tourism office, you probably won’t find one that advises visitors to hold their breath while visiting our state. But the fact that 326,660 Hoosiers suffer from asthma might be a tip-off to what’s in the air. Think of dirty air as the prime cause of respiratory disease, a factor in crop failure, the result of our dependence on coal-fired power plants and an example of Indiana’s penchant for political short-sightedness. On the other hand, air pollution is the most solvable environmental and public health problem we’ve got — one that represents economic development opportunities by way of new technologies and new jobs. This according to activists at last week’s Clean Air Town Hall Meeting, presented by Clear the Air and the Hoosier Environmental Council (HEC). About 250 people filed into a church basement to get the facts about dirty, deadly Hoosier air and what’s to be done about it. The chief source of the problem, according to Andy Knott, HEC’s Air and Energy Policy director, is Indiana’s 24 coal-fired power plants. Their emissions of mercury, carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide make Indiana one of the three smoggiest and sootiest states. Blacks, Latinos and poorer whites are more likely to live closer to these plants, where air is unhealthiest, according to Yajaira Baig, director of the Hispanic/Latino Minority Health Coalition. Since coal is so plentiful in Indiana and cheap to burn, there are few incentives for weaning off it —unless you count the 64,000 asthmatic Hoosier kids, the 35,000 miles of mercury-contaminated waterways with inedible fish, ozone smog, avoidable premature deaths and resulting health care costs. As Dr. Steven Jay, Public Health Program chair at the IU School of Medicine, put it, “We’re at a junction in history. We can stay the course and continue to implement one of the most effective public health policies in history [the clean air legislation of the last 50 years], or roll back the major health gains made.” The crowd laughed when Knott referred to President Bush’s recent Clear Skies Initiative as “the President’s Air Pollution Plan,” which would actually increase mercury emissions by 400 percent. Staffers on hand from Sen. Evan Bayh and Rep. Julia Carson’s offices received several rounds of applause for their bosses’ recent votes against Bush’s energy bill and other anti-environment bills. Activist Grant Smith from the Citizens Action Coalition (CAC) had an answer to the question of what’s being done to reduce Indiana’s dependency on fossil fuels. “We are working on a coalition of labor and energy service companies who stand to profit from energy efficiency and renewable energies.” The top third of Indiana is suited for wind power, and solar is possible, too. “We can create a sustainable energy program in Indiana which could defray 35 percent of the current coal-fired emissions and create 20,000 jobs at the same time,” Smith said. Despite — or because of — the grim statistics, “It’s an exciting time to be involved in advocacy,” Jay said. “Ambient air pollution is reducible.” What’s needed for cleaner Indiana air is a gale force of citizen demand and political will.