Code red “unhealthy” air quality exceeds DC area. Check the air quality on this map

Air quality deteriorated to code red Thursday in the Washington, DC area due to smoke from the Canadian wildfires, which pose a health risk to anyone who spends time outdoors. It comes less than three weeks after DC was hit with the worst air quality on record.

DC had the worst air quality in the world as of 11 am Thursday, according to IQAir.

Everyone is advised to stay indoors, especially the elderly, children, teenagers and people with heart or lung disease. Experts say choose less strenuous activities or avoid working outdoors if possible to limit inhaling pollution.

The pollutant is fine particulate matter (PM2.5) that can be inhaled into the lungs, according to the American Lung Association. Those tiny particles in the smoke can irritate your eyes, nose and throat and can affect your heart and lungs, making it harder to breathe.

Use the map below to check the air quality in your area.

Map: check the air quality


Air quality could change throughout the day and from neighborhood to neighborhood as smoke from wildfires wafts across much of the U.S. About 127 million people in the U.S. were on air quality alerts at the start of Thursday.

Across Canada, 490 wildfires are burning with 255 wildfires deemed out of control in the worst wildfire season on record.

The National Weather Service said there seemed to be “no end” to the impacts of the wildfires, according to NBC News.

The thick haze reduced visibility and shrouded everything outdoors in an orange-grey tint. A burning, acrid smell pervaded the district and some people resorted to N95 masks to keep themselves safe.

You don’t want to have that stuff in your lungs, said a person wearing a mask near the National Mall.

The Smithsonian Folklife Festival has canceled its opening ceremony and curtailed other programs. DC’s Department of Recreation has canceled all outdoor activities, including all fitness classes and its Fair Weather Camps, which are held completely outdoors.

The sold out concert of Robert Plant and Alison Kraus of Wolf Trap has been postponed until next summer.

The Prince George County Department of Parks and Recreation canceled all of its outdoor programming Thursday afternoon.

According to Storm Team4, a southerly flow moving in on Friday is expected to help push the smoke out of the area.

Another air quality alert is expected to go into effect Friday, but it may not be as bad, said Amelia Draper, Storm Team4 meteorologist.

At least one code orange air quality day, but we may have a more serious code red air quality day, so stay tuned, Draper said.

An orange air quality warning code indicates that the air is unhealthy to breathe for sensitive groups including children, the elderly and people with heart and respiratory conditions.

DC area air quality this week wasn’t nearly as bad as it was June 7 and 8, when levels reached code purple and even code maroon, which is classified as very unhealthy for air dangerous.

At one point DC’s air quality was the worst in the world. Schools and day care centers have kept children indoors, the Smithsonian National Zoo has been closed, and flights have been delayed.

And this is something that we will continue to experience with our changing climate.

Global warming will produce hotter, longer heat waves, creating bigger, smokier wildfires, said Joel Thornton, a professor and chair of the University of Washington’s Department of Atmospheric Sciences.

How can I stay safe from smoking in Washington?

The best way to protect yourself from the negative health effects of wildfire smoke is to avoid breathing it, which means staying inside as much as possible.

If you usually exercise outdoors, it might be a good day to hit the gym. It’s also not a good day to take kids to the park or pool, especially if they have allergies, asthma, or chronic health issues.

Pets should also stay inside when the air is unhealthy.

Other mammals suffer from many of the same lung conditions as humans, Dr. Purvi Parikh, an allergist and immunologist at the Allergy & Asthma Network, told NBC News.

It’s a good idea use the air “recirculate” button in your car.

“This keeps outside air out and keeps sending inside air through the filters,” said Chuck Bell of Storm Team4.

If you need extra protection from smoking conditions, the Centers for Disease Control recommend finding a room that you can isolate from outside air. Consider a portable air purifier or filter to keep that room clean.

There are ways to make your own air filter using a box fan and furnace filters that you can buy at most grocery stores.

Respirators, such as N95s, can help reduce smoke exposure if you have to be outdoors in poor air quality conditions, according to the CDC.

What do the air quality codes mean?

The Environmental Protection Agency monitors how polluted or clean the air is with the Air Quality Index, or AQI. The scale goes from 0 to 500, and the higher the AQI, the more pollution there is in the air.

Each interval of the AQI is assigned a color. Green is the zero to 50 portion of the range and qualifies as good air quality; yellow is between 51 and 100 and qualifies as moderate air quality. The orange code goes from 101 to 150 and means that the air is unhealthy for sensitive groups. A red code, from 151 to 200, hurts everyone.

Code purple means everyone is at risk of health impacts. Once you get to 301 and beyond, people are more likely to get sick. See the table below for the full range of the AQI.

Fires release a lot of pollution into the atmosphere. The fine particulate matter in smoke is particularly harmful to human lungs and can cause reduced lung function, throat irritation and shortness of breath, according to the EPA. It can also cause bronchitis and asthma, according to CNBC.

According to research from Stanford University, being “exposed to smoke from a fire that causes an AQI of 150 for several days is equivalent to about seven cigarettes a day if someone were out all the time.”

Air quality measurements can vary from state to state and county to county and over time during the day.

Is poor air quality rare in Washington?

We’re in unprecedented territory, said Amelia Draper, Storm Team4 meteorologist.

Days of poor air quality in the DC area in the past were previously linked to ozone pollution. As automotive technology has changed, pollution has decreased.

Prior to summer 2023, the region had not seen a code red day for air quality, excluding those related to fireworks, since February 19, 2011.

“I think that’s going to be a common topic for us here this summer, about our poor air quality, at least our foggy skies,” Draper said.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Stay with NBC Washington for more details on this developing story.

Correction (June 29, 2023, 3:22 PM): An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported one of DC’s previous days of bad air quality. It was June 7th and 8th.


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