Breathing any easier? DC area went whole summer without ‘Code Red’ air quality alert

WASHINGTON — Despite some record-breaking stretches of brutal heat this summer, most people were still breathing pretty easy.

For the fourth straight summer, D.C. air quality stayed below “Code Red” levels, a measure that tracks the amount of unhealthy smog in the air. That’s according to preliminary data published Monday by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.

Smog, officially known as ground-level ozone, is a combination of various pollutants — emitted from cars and trucks, coal-fired power plants and other sources — that react in heat and sunlight to form the smoggy haze that smudges up the air in urban areas during the summer. The smog wreaks havoc on people with lung diseases, such as asthma, emphysema and chronic bronchitis as well as children and older people.

While the D.C. area recorded no Code Red days this year, there were still 13 days this summer when air quality reached “Code Orange” levels, which indicate air-quality levels that may be unhealthy specifically for sensitive groups. Last year, there were five Code Orange days.

Overall, air quality in the D.C. area has improved dramatically over the past 15-20 years.

“The trend is very remarkable in the improvements in air quality that we have seen,” said Jennifer Desimone, chief of the air program at the council’s Department of Environmental Planning.

D.C. hasn’t recorded a Code Red day since the summer of 2012 and hasn’t recorded a Code Purple day, which indicates “very unhealthy” smog levels, since 2006.

In 1998, there were 67 days with unhealthy ozone levels, including 20 Code Red days and one Code Purple day.

The improvements in D.C. come even as federal officials have tightened air-quality standards, meaning lower levels of ground-level ozone now trigger a Code Red designation, Desimone told WTOP.

She credited a number of federal, state and local initiatives aimed at reducing overall emissions for the improving air quality.

Desimone said D.C. residents can also play a role in reducing smog levels as well, such as waiting until after dark to refuel your car in the dog days of summer and not using charcoal grills.

“So, individuals also have an impact as well,” Desimone said.

Jack Moore

Jack Moore joined as a digital writer/editor in July 2016. Previous to his current role, he covered federal government management and technology as the news editor at, part of Government Executive Media Group.

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