Northern Virginia Air Quality Index Reaches ‘Hazardous’ Levels

Northern Virginia hazardous levels of air pollution last week as a result of wildfires occurring in Eastern Canada. An air pollution event like this one is very rare, with Virginia Department of Health Quality meteorologist Daniel Salkovitz saying he had not seen air quality levels this bad in nearly 20 years.

According to Director of the Air and Radiation Division of EPA Region 3 Cristina Fernandez, over 2,000 wildfires are burning throughout Eastern Canada, with some of the most severe ones in the Quebec region. Though Canada does have a regular wildfire season, the fires at this time of the year are more out of control than others, she said. Salkvotiz said the current weather pattern caused winds to blow from north to south, moving the smoke from the fires down along the east coast of the United States. 

The smoke caused a haze over the sky along much of the East Coast, including northern Virginia. However, the main cause for concern is that the smoke contains PM2.5, or particulate matter the size of 2.5 microns. Jenna Krall, an assistant professor at George Mason University’s Department of Global and Community Health, said the particle size is what makes it particularly dangerous for people to inhale. 

“They can travel deeper into the body,” she said. ”You think about larger particles, which are going to be the ones that make you sneeze or you cough up, but these particles will bypass those natural defenses and travel deep into the lungs.”

Inhaling the particles is particularly harmful for people with cardiovascular issues and asthma, but at the levels seen in Northern Virginia on Wednesday and Thursday, they can be harmful for anyone. Professor Krall said that the specific particles in the air may be even more dangerous because of the fact that they were produced by fires and may contain unknown chemicals.

The EPA measures air quality using an Air Quality index, which has ranges that represent how unhealthy the air is. Beginning on Monday, Fairfax County’s air quality index numbers began to increase, peaking at 314 on Thursday morning, which is classified as hazardous levels of air pollution.

In response, the Fairfax County Health Department released an air quality alert, recommending that people limit their time outdoors, specifically avoiding strenuous exercise outdoors and wearing N95 masks if one must be outside. For the most part however, they recommended people stay inside and keep windows closed. Fairfax County Public Schools also canceled outdoor after school activities and recess on Wednesday and Thursday, June 7 and 8.

“One of the things we'll be doing in the Public Health Department is continuing to monitor the health impacts based on the current visits to our surrounding hospitals and emergency departments for conditions that could be attributed to this poor air quality index,” Parham Jaberi, the deputy director for medical services in the FCHD, said. 

On a county level and on a regional level, this amount of air pollution was not expected, as the wind and fire patterns are difficult to predict. For the levels to decrease, the wind patterns changed away from north to south, which according to Salkovitz, was expected closer to last weekend. 

As of Thursday night, June 9, air pollution levels in the Northern Virginia area have decreased from a status of hazardous to unhealthy as wind patterns have begun to change. Fairfax County will continue to monitor the situation and release updated guidelines based on the air quality index. The EPA has a website and app called that shows continuously updated air quality data throughout the day. 

“I think this is one of those cases where listening and taking in the information from your local public health and elected officials is important because every community may be facing a different impact as a result of these poor air quality levels,” Jaberi said.