News & Politics

Code Red Air Quality in DC: Your Questions, Answered

Is it safe to exercise outside? Should your dog be outside? And when will this end?

Photograph by Jake Sawyer/National Park Service.

Recess was canceled, the Apple Weather Map is showing red, and the National Park Service suggested people heading to the National Mall go inside a Smithsonian museum instead of hanging outside. DC’s air quality is in a “Code Red” due to smoke drifting south from the wildfires currently raging in Canada. Minnesota, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, and now Washington, DC, have been blanketed in hazes of varying density. 

This has raised a lot of questions among Washingtonians. We tried to answer some of the common ones here.

What does “Code Red” air quality mean?

The Air Quality Index monitors the density of five air pollutants, including carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and particulate matter. The index goes from one to 500, with the higher numbers indicating worse air quality, and an index of 101 and above indicating “adverse health effects.” As I type this, DC is at 179, and anything above 151 is in “Code Red” or “unhealthy.” At a few points today,  it seemed to go above 200, which is getting into “Code Purple” and “very unhealthy.”

Is it safe to go outside just for a walk? How about a run?

This is probably not the time for any outdoor exercise. The best way to handle a Code Red is to stay inside, says allergist immunologist Karen Kaufman of the Kaufman Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology Center in Tysons. “While the Air Quality Index is in an unhealthy range, it’s best for everyone to delay outdoor activities until the air quality improves to good or moderate,” she says.  “Partaking in outdoor exercise or activities is an individual judgment call, though individuals with underlying respiratory problems should take extra care to protect themselves.”  

Dr. Kaufman encourages those who can’t stay inside all day to mask up while outdoors with an N95 mask.

Is it safe for my child to be outside?

Inhaling smoke can raise the risk of asthma in children. And extra precaution should also be taken with a child who already has asthma. “It’s important to have relief medication on hand to use if needed for symptoms that may arise, such as cough, chest tightness, shortness of breath or wheezing,” Kaufman says. 

Is it safe for my dog to be outside?

The same advice extends to our pets, because human and animal lungs are not that different, says DC veterinarian Solomon Perl. “It’s just like with people. The old and the ones with lung difficulties should stay inside as much as possible,” he says. “Your old dog with chronic bronchitis still needs to go out and pee, but you shouldn’t leave him out for a while. Your asthmatic cat is more likely to get an asthma attack because of the ash in the air.” 

How long is this expected to last and how can I get the latest air quality information?

AirNow.Gov, run by multiple environmental agencies, is the place to go for the most accurate and up-to-date wildfire smoke information. According to AirNow.Gov, the DC area can expect another Code Red day tomorrow with an Air Quality Index rating of around 156. Then we’ll go down a notch to “code orange: unhealthy for sensitive groups” on Friday and Saturday.* 

You can also head to the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments Website for more Air Quality Index updates.


*This article has been updated since its original posting.

Malcolm Ferguson
Editorial Fellow