Editor’s note: The Baltimore Banner is providing this news free to all readers as a public service.

Following a “very unhealthy” and “hazardous” air quality ratings Thursday morning, the Baltimore region was back to “unhealthy” air ratings Thursday afternoon as smoke from distant wildfires continued to linger over the area.

By 5 p.m. Thursday, air quality readings in the Baltimore metro area were showing “unhealthy” levels of air pollution. Most monitors in the D.C. metro area are also showing “unhealthy” air, according to IQAir.

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The Maryland Department of the Environment issued a Code Orange Air Quality Alert for Friday for the Baltimore metro area and for Annapolis region, which means the air is considered unhealthy for sensitive groups. Sensitive groups that should be careful include children, anyone with asthma, heart disease, lung disease and older adults.

A meteorologist at the Baltimore-Washington Office of the National Weather Service on Thursday afternoon said smokey conditions will begin to improve Friday, but we should expect to see some smoke even into next week.

“We’re trending in the clearing up direction, into the weekend and even into the middle part of next week,” Kevin Witt, the meteorologist, said.

The IQAir’s forecast for Saturday showed the air returning to “acceptable” levels in Baltimore.

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“If you don’t have to be outside, don’t. Those who have preexisting conditions should be wearing a mask,” Mayor Brandon Scott said Thursday morning.

”I know no one wants to be hearing from me talking about wearing masks again,” he said. “But we should know now that I’m only going to do that when it’s in the best interest of people’s public health and safety.”

Where to seek shelter

The Mayor’s Office of Homeless Services said Thursday that unsheltered people can take refuge at three locations during the day:

  • My Sister’s Place Women’s Center at 17 W. Franklin St.
  • Beans & Bread at 402 S. Bond Street
  • Franciscan Center at 101 W. 23rd St.

Additionally, Manna House at 435 E. 25th St. is available as a location for people to pick up supplies, including masks and food, but is not available as a refuge.

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All city-funded shelters remain “shelter-in-place,” which means people staying there are not discharged each day and shelter clients can remain inside if they choose.

A spokesperson for the Baltimore City Health Department said the agency was not aware of the department opening up any of its cooling centers because of the air quality concerns.

Carroll County officials opened several air quality relief centers around the county, including senior centers and public library branches that are open during the day and into the evening.

James Lee takes his dogs for a walk as dangerous levels of haze cover Baltimore on Thursday, June 8, 2023. (Dylan Thiessen/The Baltimore Banner)

Where to find masks

Public health and other local officials have been advising people to wear masks outside, specifically the KN95 and N95 models many stocked up on during the coronavirus pandemic, as cloth and surgical masks can’t filter the particulate matter in the air.

Robyn Gilden, an associate professor at the University of Maryland School of Nursing, said it’s important people know that a cloth mask “will only help with the smell” and not actually keep a person safe from the health concerns associated with wildfire smoke.

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Many local health departments and libraries had been handing out N95 masks for free. But those stocks appear to be low around the region, as many jurisdictions are no longer ordering them.

A representative at the Light Street branch of Baltimore City’s Enoch Pratt Free Library system said they are out of N95s and KN95s, but some other city branches still have some.

Linda Frederick, marketing and development manager for the Baltimore County Public Library system, said county branches do not have N95 or equivalent masks to give away. The local health department stopped giving them masks in February of last year when the mandate was lifted for county buildings.

In Anne Arundel and Howard counties, some library branches have N95s or equivalent masks, and they’re still getting fresh supplies from the local health departments.

The air quality in Baltimore and the surrounding region is worse Thursday morning than it was Wednesday. Parts of the region have very unhealthy air and some have hazardous, man walks across a foot bridge at the Inner Haror. (Kirk McKoy/The Baltinore Banner)

How schools are handling the conditions

Baltimore City Public Schools are keeping all students indoors and canceling outdoor activities. Field trips to indoor destinations such as museums can proceed.

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”For Schools without AC [air conditioning], students and staff should wear masks and keep windows and doors closed,” the school district said in a statement.

The district activated an automated calling system that alerted families to the restrictions and added that air purifiers would be in use, and schools without air conditioning would be provided with extra fans.

Anne Arundel County Public Schools is moving all its outdoor activities indoors, and Howard County Public Schools canceled all outdoor activities.

Baltimore County Public Schools canceled all outdoor activities during the school day, including field trips, because of the air quality. An email sent to parents said the school would make a decision about after-school activities later in the morning.

Carroll County Public Schools only canceled after-school outdoor activities. A school system spokesperson said it’s up to individual schools to determine if kids should stay indoors. According to AirNow.gov, air quality is good in parts of the county.

And Harford County Public Schools said Thursday afternoon that the “expectation” is that all recesses and outdoor activities would be held indoors for the remainder of the week.

Disruptions across the region

As of 11 a.m., flights into Baltimore were on schedule, though the Federal Aviation Administration is warning that wildfire smoke may cause flight delays all across the region.

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Baltimore Mayor Scott said the Department of Recreation and Parks will suspend all outdoor activities through Friday and encouraged residents to do the same in their private lives.

The smoky haze prompted some restaurants and bars to close, including the beer garden Hampden Yards and Mt. Vernon coffee shop Baby’s on Fire. “Due to our friends up North being literally on Fire and making our air quality soooo very dangerous, Baby’s will be closed today,” read a caption beneath a screenshot of air quality readings in Baltimore.

The Maryland Zoo closed at noon, and visitors should check the zoo website for information on reopening.

The Maryland Jockey Club announced on Twitter that it cancelled training “in the interests of the health and safety of horses and riders” and would monitor air quality in coming days before deciding when to resume.

And while a decision hasn’t been made yet, the Orioles said Thursday the team is “hopeful” they will be able to begin their three-game series tomorrow at Camden Yards against the Kansas City Royals

What’s causing the air pollution

Smoke from Canadian wildfires is being carried by the wind to the skies over Baltimore and much of the northeastern United States. It’s the reason the sky has looked so hazy lately, and why you might smell smoke if you’re outside.

Wildfire smoke is a mix of gases and and fine particles and can make anyone sick, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Breathing in smoke can have immediate health effects, including coughing, irritated sinuses and headaches.

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Wildfire smoke creates a kind of air pollution called PM 2.5, which is particulate matter that is 2.5 micrometers or smaller in diameter. For comparison, a human hair is about 70 micrometers in diameter. Particles that small can get into your lungs and bloodstream and cause health concerns. Kevin Stewart, who is the director of environmental health at the American Lung Association of the Mid-Atlantic, said air quality this poor is “very unhealthy for everyone.”

“People at high risk can experience problems, but others can, too, and it may be a surprise to them. Maybe they have an issue with asthma or a heart problem and didn’t realize it. And your lung capacity declines after your early twenties, so you have less reserve there,” he said. “Air pollution like this kills people.”

If you have a condition such as asthma and develop symptoms from being in the air, Gilden says to use your regular medications. If those don’t work, you should go to your doctor or the emergency room.

If you don’t have any known conditions like asthma or heart disease but develop symptoms from being outside, she says, get indoors and into air conditioning. If that does not help and you’re still short of breath, call your medical provider.

“This is not a time to play around with respiratory symptoms,” she said.

Understanding Air Quality Index

The U.S. government measures how safe the air is using the Air Quality Index, which is a scale from 0-500. The higher the number, the more hazardous the air and the greater the health concerns.

Baltimore has been experiencing air quality ratings as high as the 300s. That’s considered “hazardous” on the index, meaning the air is unsafe for everyone and an emergency condition. Most of the city also experienced an index of 201-300 Thursday, which is considered “very unhealthy” and means there are increased health risks for everyone.

How smoke pollution affects pets

The general rule is that if it’s not safe for a person to be outside, it’s not safe for a pet to be outside.

Krista Rieckert, a veterinarian with Evergreen Veterinary Care, said you should only take your animals outside if it’s necessary, and to take shorter walks with your dogs.

“It’s definitely not one of those days to go to the dog park or anything like that,” she said. She suggested playing with your animals indoors and having them do indoor enrichment activities instead.

Cats can develop asthma, she said, so air quality concern days can be tough on them. Rieckert suggested seeking emergency veterinary care if an animal is having trouble breathing or looks to be in any sort of respiratory distress, and to call your regular veterinarian with any questions.

“When animals are at rest, they should be breathing comfortably. You shouldn’t see a lot of effort with their belly,” she said.

This story may be updated.

Reporters Hallie Miller, Kristen Griffith, Emily Sullivan, Sarah True and Christina Tkacik contributed to this article.

cody.boteler@thebaltimorebanner.com