Break Out Those Face Masks Again as Smoke Blankets US Cities

June 7, 2023 by Dan McCue
Break Out Those Face Masks Again as Smoke Blankets US Cities
Haze blankets over monuments on the National Mall in Washington, Wednesday, June 7, 2023, as seen from Arlington, Va. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

WASHINGTON — Weather and health officials are advising those living in some of the most heavily populated communities in the U.S. to consider donning face masks and varying their daily routines in light of a blanket of smoke rolling over most of the eastern half of the country.

The issue, the National Weather Service reports, is an upper level low that is directing a plume of smoke from persistent wildfires in Quebec, Canada, south and across the eastern U.S., including the urban corridor stretching from Washington, D.C., to Boston, Massachusetts, along Interstate-95.

The hazy conditions are forecast to linger in the area for the next several days.

In addition, the National Weather Service said, critical fire-weather conditions have already been forecast in most areas dealing with the smoke from Canada, including the Great Lakes region, the mid-Atlantic and Northeast.

Washington, D.C., area residents got a taste of these “additional” smoky conditions on Tuesday when a landfill fire in Lorton, Virginia, just south of the District of Columbia, sent plumes of smoke over the city.

Because such excessive smoke is a serious air pollution threat, health officials advise that the best thing for people to do under the current conditions is to limit their exposure by staying inside as much as possible and wearing a face mask if they do have to venture outside.

As we all learned from the COVID-19 pandemic, however, all face masks are not equal.

N95 masks work the best, health officials say, because they can filter tiny particles that are less than 0.3 micrometers. Plain old surgical masks and bandannas and the like, don’t help nearly as much when it comes to keeping pollutants from getting into one’s lungs.

Also, another lesson from the pandemic: Be sure whatever mask you use covers both your nose and mouth.

The National Weather Service is also cautioning people to avoid exercising outside if they can help it.

As for the inside of one’s home, health officials say if you smell smoke, it’s time to close your windows.

In addition, the Environmental Protection Agency is recommending that people avoid activities like cooking or vacuuming under the smoky conditions we are currently experiencing because these activities tend to stir up pollutants that are already inside the home.

While itchy eyes and sore throats draw people’s attention to their upper respiratory system under such conditions, the American Lung Association also suggests paying extra attention to one’s feet, using a good welcome mat to wipe your shoes on, or taking shoes off altogether when entering your house, to avoid tracking in contaminants.

The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments issued a Code Red Air Quality Health Advisory for the metropolitan Washington region on Wednesday and said similar conditions have already been forecast for Thursday. 

Code Red, as you may have guessed, means local air pollution has reached unhealthy levels for everyone. 

According to the Council of Governments, Wednesday is the first Code Red day the region has experienced in 2023, and some local weather forecasters say the conditions are the worst D.C. has experienced in 10 years.

Prior to Wednesday, the nation’s capital had experienced a total of six Code Orange days, meaning the air quality was unhealthy for sensitive groups.

Members of sensitive groups include individuals with respiratory and heart ailments, emphysema, asthma or chronic bronchitis.

In addition to the steps above, the Council of Governments is advising area residents to turn off lights and electronics to avoid area outages caused by greater reliance on air conditioners, avoid mowing one’s lawn (unless one uses an electric mower), and to telework if they can, both to avoid exposure to the smoke and reduce the number of accidents that might occur due to reduced visibility on local roadways.

D.C. residents can check current air quality conditions and the forecast on the Council of Governments‘ website (www.mwcog.org/AQI) or by downloading a free air quality app from Council of Governments’ Clean Air Partners program.

Residents of Maryland can check the current air quality conditions here, and Virginia residents may do so here.

Dan can be reached at [email protected] and at https://twitter.com/DanMcCue


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